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Film review: The Great Wall - it's man versus beast in this visual spectacle

21 Feb 2017

The Great Wall of China is one of the five wonders of the world; and why wouldn’t it be? The 8,851 kilometre-long wall rivals the great pyramids in terms of scale, manpower and the colossal effort require to build that thing.

It may have been built to keep people out; but the biggest question in this film is: What if the invaders aren’t people?

If you haven’t seen the trailer, you’d almost be fooled into thinking this is a traditional war film picked up by Hollywood. The official movie poster gives nothing away; this is a tale of man versus beast.

Borrowing from Chinese motifs, the Taotie take centre stage in this blockbuster, directed by Zhang Yimou.

William (Matt Damon) sports a scruffy beard and the weariness of the ages alongside his counterparts Tovar, played by former Game of Thrones star Pedro Pascal.

The Westerners are on a quest for black powder, and they’ll do anything to get it.

When an as-yet unidentified creature chows down on one of William’s compatriots, he defeats the beast and cuts off its hand.

Eventually they’re cornered by The Nameless Order, the impressive military guarding the wall. William and Tovar have no choice but to weather the vicious battle ahead. First with each other, and then with the beasts.

Jing Tian takes the role of Commander Lin Mae, Andy Lau makes the war a little more clear as Wang, the strategist and war counsellor, Eddie Pend as Commander Wu and Wang Junkai as the eloquently-clothed Emperor.

Willem Dafoe makes a significant appearance as Sir Ballard, a mysterious figure who, amongst other roles, makes a great translator.

The choreography, level of weaponry and the battle itself is intricate and fierce. I’m also a fan of tribal drumming so unsurprisingly the war drums sent shivers down my spine.

This film has spared pretty much no expense in the costume department; transitioning from weathered ‘trader’ outfits to elaborate Chinese battle armour to the even more elaborate colour and flair that embodies the imperial kingdom.

There was one scene that displayed a clear face warp/rendering effect, but otherwise the CGI didn’t stack up too badly, given the $150 million budget. It tread the fine line between CGI and too much CGI, but it’s not as if you they had a live Taotie to study first.

If anything, this is an entertainment blockbuster that shows a small part of China in a story that puts man versus beast (and greed); it’s not rooted in the intricacies of Chinese militaries or battles.

It’s not a martial arts movie; it’s an action movie. It’s a Chinese flavour to a Hollywood blockbuster and damn, is it a visual spectacle. 

The Great Wall is in cinemas now.

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