The film begins with captions saying that there are both facts and legends surrounding the Great Wall. The movie is “one of the legends”, making an outright disclaimer to any objections that will be made by detractors concerning the film’s fantastic premise.
The film opens like a western at the Gobi Desert, with Matt playing a mercenary, William, who is being chased by some tribes in Northern China, along with another mercenary, Tovar (Pedro Pascal, who plays Oberyn Martell in “Game of Thrones”). When they are captured by the soldiers of a military outpost at the Great Wall, they claim to be traveling traders. The truth is Matt wants to get the formula in producing gunpowder that can make him rich abroad.
The outpost is manned by elite soldiers who belong to the Nameless Order led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu.) Matt shows them a giant paw he has cut off from a monster who attacked him and he’s told that the creature is a Tao Tie, beasts who look like giant buffalos with ugly faces and sharp teeth. The Tao Tie has long been trying to get into China and attack every 60 years (as to why only every 60 years is not explained). It is predators like this that apparently became the reason why the Great Wall was constructed.
Soon Matt and Pascal witness a big battle when the monsters attack again, which is spectacularly staged through Industrial Light and Magic magnificent special effects. They’re definitely a better version of similar scenes we’ve seen before in the Japanese manga turned movie, “Attack on Titan”.
Matt proves to be an expert archer and he also saves the life of a young soldier (K-pop idol Lu Han), so he becomes an ally of the Chinese and gets chummy with the female commander, Lin (Jing Tian), who speaks good English. Also detained in the outpost for 25 years is Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and he was the one who taught Lin and another officer, Wang (Andy Lau), how to speak English (also Latin) fluently. It is Lin who influences Matt not to just fight for money, like what mercenaries do, but for a higher cause in serving one’s country and helping save humankind.
What the movie offers is a lot of spectacle, like the female soldiers who do bungee jumping down the
Great Wall to slay the marauding beasts. Another gripping sequence shows Matt helping the Chinese soldiers capture a beast alive, with everything clouded in the mist and fog. The finale is staged with hordes of Tao Tie creatures laying siege to two big pagodas. The whole thing looks more like a zombie apocalypse in “World War Z”, but with a distinctly Chinese backdrop. The way the beasts themselves are designed is quite impressive, especially their queen, who has to be destroyed to subdue them all.
If you’re looking for a creative masterpiece like what Zhang Yimou has accomplished before in such award-winning films dealing with delicate relationships like “Raise the Red Lantern”, “To Live” or even “House of Flying Daggers”, then no doubt you’d be disappointed. We think they made a deliberate choice in making this collaboration between the American and Chinese film industries a more commercial enterprise with the look and feel of a Hollywood blockbuster that will cater not just to arthouse enthusiasts but to all sorts of audiences.
Made with a reported budget of $150 million, the spectacular battle scenes will make you recall those of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It’s been released in Asia earlier as it will open in the U.S. in mid-February yet. It has to do really well both at the Chinese and American box office to recoup its huge investment.