The simplicity of the story is genuinely surprising. At the start, Irish mercenary William (Damon) and his Spanish companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are wandering Northwestern China in search of a rumored black powder that will turn air into fire and night into day — in other words, gunpowder — when they’re attacked by some impossible beast they can’t get a good look at. They cut off its giant claw and, spooked by what they’ve discovered, seek refuge with an army — the Nameless Order — camped inside the gates of the Great Wall of China.
There, they immediately find themselves in the midst of a battle against these strange creatures, called Taotie, which are like giant, man-eating, hyper-intelligent iguanas that travel in enormous, well-organized packs. Taken in by Commander Lin (Tian Jing), who leads the Order’s all-female Crane Corps, they join in the fight, even while they conspire to find a way to get the gunpowder and smuggle it out.
The story has a couple more moves after that, but that’s basically it. Most of the film is spent on lavish, brain-melting depictions of combat and on the intricate munitions and battle configurations the Order mounts against the Taotie. They’ve armed the wall with massive catapults that fire huge flaming cannonballs, and then huge flaming spiked cannonballs, while well-disciplined and color-coordinated archers fire poison-dipped harpoons. Meanwhile, the castle turrets open to reveal giant scissor-thingamabobs that slice through invading hordes trying to make it up the walls.
Also, the fighting platforms of the Great Wall feature retractable, multi-pronged diving boards from which brave Crane warriors wielding huge spears bungee jump into teeming crowds of Taotie. Oh, and there are these awesome arrows with flutes tied around them, so that once an arrow hits its target the flute blows a tune whenever the victim breathes, which makes it a lot easier to tell if a wounded Taotie is sneaking up on you if by chance you find yourself isolated on a battlefield in the middle of a dense fog — and, hey, wouldn’t you know ...
As pure spectacle, The Great Wall is absolutely dazzling. It may be a studio release, but the constant sense of invention, the go-for-broke intricacy of its battle scenes, feels very much of a piece with Chinese action fantasy flicks. Over the course of a couple of decades, director Zhang has gone from a dissenting chronicler of social oppression (in movies like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern) to beloved people’s artist chronicling the glories of the State (in movies like Hero); he has an almost supernatural eye for composition and light, as well as a keen sense of rhythm.
Matched with a high-powered Hollywood budget, his flair for the epic truly takes flight, giving us moments of martial, maximalist poetry: arrows flying in formation to create perfect flaming circles that then entrap their targets; perfectly regimented armies marching along the Wall’s endlessly snaking walkways; a flock of hot-air balloons descending at dawn on a capital city pullulating with lizard-demons.
That said, the script itself is mostly corn, and broadly predictable. The Taotie, as indestructible as they may seem, have plenty of clear weaknesses that, early on, get painfully telegraphed, so that we spend much of the movie waiting for everyone to devise a plan that already seems patently obvious to us. Along the way, Commander Lin teaches William about trust, while the latter’s individualism seems at constant odds with the cooperative spirit of the Chinese fighting alongside him. His mercenary past gets called into question: When Lin asks him how many flags he’s fought under, William rolls off a whole series of nation-states and leaders — Spain, the Pope, the English King Harold, Bologna, the Danes — much to her patriotic dismay.
I remembered, watching such scenes, that the classic action-movie trajectory of an out-for-himself hero learning to believe in a cause fits right in with the occasionally authoritarian mythology of collective sacrifice. But hey, authoritarians are also good at military parades: Who cares about individualism when what’s onscreen is so ravishing? The more we can turn off our brains, the better we can enjoy this pageant.