William (Matt Damon) is an adventurer around 1000 A.D. who is travelling through the Chinese lands with his band of mercenaries, all of whom hope to get their hands on the so-called "black powder" that is supposed to have been invented there so they may bring it back to Europe. However, their journey is fraught with danger, including crossing paths with bandits and tribes who do not appreciate them trespassing, not to mention seeking the secret of the explosive substance. So it is that the group is attacked which whittles their number down to a mere duo, William and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), who as the night has fallen meet their potential end when a monster looms out of the darkness...
Ah, but William is a dab hand with his weaponry, including a bow and arrows and a sword, and he manages to best the monster, cutting off its foreleg in the process. He suggests to Tovar that he take it with them so they may not only get the powder, but also find out what it was that menaced them, and the next scene, what do you know they are at the titular Great Wall of China which the opening titles have informed us took seventeen hundred years to construct. This movie, being a Chinese production, was very proud of its wall and its uses, that much was clear, but it was not just that nation that created what they hoped would be a blockbuster across the globe, it was the product of at least four.
That proved an issue when Damon's starring role was regarded as problematic, apparently because it's not on to have a white American actor play the hero among a bunch of non-white, non-American actors, though the loudest complaints seemed to hail from those who were ignorant of the fact this was how international co-productions operated, they picked their casts from around the world in the hope that each member would have their own fanbases in each territory it was released in, therefore increasing the exposure and the profits. The way the anti-Damon contingent would have it was that he stepped in to save the Chinese from their enemies, which on watching the movie simply wasn't the case.
Besides, such people behind The Great Wall were purely sticking to the rules of these co-productions which had been going on for decades, and often on this scale, though not always: watch The Stranger and the Gunfighter or The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires or The Man from Hong Kong or even The Way of the Dragon to see how Hong Kong capitalised on other markets in the nineteen-seventies, for example. It was a pity this controversy seemed to harm the box office of the movie in the West, because with director Zhang Yimou at the helm you were at least guaranteed an experience that was going to look good, though that said when it came down to it most of how the photography and sets looked was the responsibility of the special effects team which tended to dominate the proceedings, leaving that CGI computer game appearance for a lot of the time.
Edward Zwick was the man who originally kicked off the project, hoping for another pan-Asian hit like his Tom Cruise-starring The Last Samurai, and it seemed The Great Wall was destined to meet that film's fate, used as filler in television schedules because it was easy to watch without being taxing, and had a certain self-serious tone that you could kid yourself you were watching something important. It's true there were not many jokes here, but that meant fewer opportunities for goofy scenes, as they took the monsters very seriously indeed and left the outwitting of the beasts more a case of strategy than brute force, which was refreshingly different to the average Hollywood CGI fest that would concentrate on a more mindless spectacle. Jing Tian was the most prominent Chinese performer, playing the General William joins forces with, Willem Dafoe showed up as some kind of refugee, and Andy Lau made his presence felt because it was seemingly the law for him to appear in this sort of thing, and though they did not quite shift the "all acting in different movies" feeling, there was enough co-operation to craft a perfectly decent second division fantasy epic, even if it was aiming for the top. Music by Ramin Djawadi (for that Game of Thrones sound).
Chinese director responsible for some of the country’s best known international hits. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Yimou made his debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum, which like much of his later work combined a small-scale drama with stunning visuals. His breakthrough film was the beautiful Raise the Red Lantern, the first of four films he made with then-partner Gong Li. The Story of Qui Ju, To Live, Shanghai Triad and Not One Less were among the films Yimou made throughout the 90s. The Chaplin-esque comedy Happy Times was a bit of a misfire, but 2002's Oscar-nominated martial arts spectacle Hero was a massive hit, critically and commercially. Another martial arts film, House of Flying Daggers, followed in 2004, as did Curse of the Golden Flower and later the internationally-flavoured fantasy The Great Wall.