The Great Wall has long been talked up as a landmark of sorts: It’s Matt Damon’s first foray into China, Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production and the first film to come out of Legendary Pictures’ continent-hopping strategy. The result, however, has turned out to be much less exciting than all the hype might have suggested.
Beyond the casting and the ceaseless onslaught of diverse special effects, Zhang and his Hollywood screenwriters have delivered nothing more than a formulaic monster movie — albeit one transposed to a historically undefined China where generals dressed like Terracotta warriors have already mastered anesthetics, air travel and American-accented English.
Telling the fantastical story of the massive battle waged to stop paranormal beasts from invading China, The Great Wall is easily the least interesting and involving blockbuster of the respective careers of both its director and star. Still, Damon has certainly lent the whole enterprise a certain pedigree, and his presence (alongside Willem Dafoe and Chinese A-listers Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu) should propel the film to box office success in China. For the international market, however, the film would perhaps best be positioned as a novelty for monster-flick fanboys or those interested in Zhang Yimou’s brand of cultural exotica.
Using computer-generated images of the Great Wall, the film begins with short on-screen texts explaining that, as the wall enters its third millennium in existence, there are both facts and legends about it. “This is one of the legends,” the text reads, offering a disclaimer geared toward detractors readying to question the extraordinary premise to follow.
The protagonist here is one William Garin (Damon), who, while fleeing from the “hill tribes” in northern China, gets himself and his fellow mercenary Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones) captured by a military garrison at one of the main outposts along the Great Wall. With their claim that they’re just traders easily debunked, the pair’s lives are spared when William proffers a giant paw he chopped off from a beast that attacked him and Tovar in the steppes.
The monster, they are then told, is a Taotie, a deadly lizard-like paranormal species which has long been trying to invade China. These monsters, it is revealed, are actually why the Great Wall was built — and William and Tovar are soon given a glimpse of why in a high-octane battle sequence rendered a true spectacle by Industrial Light and Magic’s state-of-the-art digital pyrotechnics.
Having saved a soldier in the battle and showcased his archery skills, William is welcomed into the life of the garrison. Initially bent on getting what he wants — some mysterious gun powder that will earn him a fortune back home — his conscience is soon awakened (this is Matt Damon, after all), and his head turned by Lin (Jing Tian, Special ID), the only female and English-speaking commander at the outpost.
It’s hardly a surprise that William chooses to stay even after Tovar — egged on by Ballard (Dafoe), who has been in detention at the camp for 25 years, teaching English to Lin and strategist Wang (Andy Lau) in the process — plots to steal the treasure and leave. And while the “Westerners” are regularly shown up by the physically powerful and invariably principled Chinese warriors, it’s hardly a surprise who eventually gets to save the day for China and all mankind.
There’s also a message, which Lin spells out when she lectures William about the importance of trust. The banality of this moral is representative of the weightlessness of nearly every aspect of the film: The characters are ciphers, the narrative is dull and even the sights and sounds become numbingly bombastic after a while. Even Damon seems to be struggling with his dialogue, which is anachronistically peppered with modern vocabulary (one character gets to say “bitch”), humor (a handful of “I heard that!” jokes) and bromanctic quips between William and Tovar.
And that’s not to mention the sheer lack of logic in the film: Why do the Taoties only attack human beings every 60 years? Why does the army host a “crane corps,” involving female soldiers bungee-jumping down the wall to lance the beasts, when there are already cannons and other artillery? And why is everybody rolling their R’s when they speak?
Then again, Zhang might have delivered exactly what was asked of him — a no-nonsense visual spectacle that stops at nothing in its portrayal of an imaginary, mysterious ancient culture. Or perhaps The Great Wall is simply a safety-first exercise for Zhang, Damon and their financiers in consolidating their respective first moves outside their usual terrain; it may be a landmark film for the Chinese and U.S. film industries, but it’s hardly a creative breakthrough for anyone involved.
Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, Le Vision Pictures, China Film Group
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, based on a story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz
Producers: Thomas Tull, Charles Roven, Jon Jashni, Peter Loehr
Executive producers: Jillian Share, Alex Gartner, La Peikang, Zhang Zhao, E. Bennett Walsh
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh, Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: John Myrhe
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editors: Mary Jo Markey, Craig Wood
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Casting: John Papsidera, Victoria Thomas
In English and Mandarin
PG-13, 103 minutes