First Hit: Although visually arresting at times, there's nothing believable about this story.
The problem with fantasies are that if they aren’t done well, the audience slips out of the story and is left with just watching interesting pictures and waiting the next piece of action. That is what happens here.
It begins with a group of horsemen being chased by another group of horsemen in the middle of a desert. How did they get there, where did they come from, why are they there?
We don't get much background, but when William (Matt Damon), the main character, speaks, because of the film's time period, it is hard to buy his American accent and dialect because the English hadn't occupied the United States yet.
This isn't the only problem in this film, but it is one of the first the audience encounters. We learn that his band of marauders is in search of gunpowder as it has been rumored that the Chinese have discovered a black powder that can kill many people with one use. After the initial chase scene, the men are getting restless because they've not found the powder and they keep losing men. William's closest ally in this ever decreasing small group of men is Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who at least has an appropriate European accent.
While hiding in a cave from the latest group trying to kill them, they get attacked by some beasts. The beasts kill everyone except Tovar and William. On the run again, they ride into The Great Wall with warriors all around them and dressed in beautiful, colorful, and striking uniforms. It is a wonder of the world. The warriors are manning the wall because a 60 year cycle is complete and the beast are coming to kill them, get past the wall and head towards the capital of China.
The warriors on the wall have various skills and techniques to kill the beasts. Catapults that use large balls covered with oil and lit on fire. There are bow and arrow teams. There are spear teams and teams of women who jump off the wall tethered to the top of the wall and are pulled up once they throw their spears. The leader of this bungie team is Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) who is also in line to be a higher-level leader. She has learned English from a previously captured man named Ballard (Willem Dafoe).
When the beasts come, William shows his bravery and kills many beasts and earns the respect of the Chinese Army leaders.
The film goes on, and on, which is part of the problem because, nothing is explained or validated and the audience is supposed to just accept the premises and buy into the story. This is the failing of this film to me.
It seems as though this film was created to show something about the wall, the glory of big and beautiful sets, bravery of Chinese warriors, and that they alone invented gunpowder. I kept thinking why didn’t they use the gunpowder against the beasts at the beginning? Why did they wait until near collapse of the capital? And even in the end, I kept asking where did William come from?
This question and many others kept coming up while watching the film and made the experience rather unfulfilling.
Damon was OK, but I never bought his accent or his story. Doing this may have been a good idea, but in the end I would sense that Damon would like to forget it. Jing was too beautifully made up in each of her close-ups to believe she was in a war for her life and the life of her country. Pascal’s was one of the best parts of the film. There was a level of irreverence in his character’s dialogue that made the film fun. Dafoe was wasted in this role. Seemed as though he was only there as a way for Mae to learn English so that she could speak to William. Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro wrote a skeptical screenplay. There was little to get the audience to buy into, engage with, or believe about the story. Director Yimou Zhang seemed far more interested in big picture beauty and chorography versus putting a story together that engages the audience.
Overall: The pictures were pretty; the story flimsy and execution was mediocre.