Chinese warriors have been protecting the Great Wall from monsters for a thousand years, but it takes a white guy with a magnet to save the day in Universal Pictures’ The Great Wall, an action epic from director Zhang Yimou. Matt Damon is the white guy who comes to the rescue in this generic monster movie with a whopping $150 million budget. It’s obvious where the budget was spent (CGI monsters, costumes, hair, makeup, production design, and choreography) and what was slighted in the process (a coherent script).
The film’s set in the 11th century with Damon playing William Garin, a mercenary in search of black powder. William and his trusty comic sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are on the hunt when they’re attacked by a bizarre green creature. William manages to chop off the creature’s arm before forcing it to tumble off a cliff. However, their victory is short-lived when they’re captured by the Nameless Order, a highly-trained garrison of Chinese soldiers who guard the Great Wall from invaders and vicious monsters known as Taotie. Apparently, the Taotie came from a meteor that crashed into Earth 2,000 years ago and now they attack the Great Wall every 60 years. I’m sure it was explained why there’s a 60-year break between attacks … something about having to feed, I believe … but truthfully the details behind the how and whys of it all aren’t interesting enough to bother remembering.
So, William and Pero are taken captive by the Nameless Order and ultimately wind up fighting alongside the Chinese soldiers once the Taotie launch their attack. One thing leads to another and it’s William who saves the day, thanks to a large magnetic rock that puts the monsters to sleep. The usefulness of the magnet changes throughout the film, but its presence is so important that you have to wonder why no one ever thought of hunting one down during the previous thousand years.
The CGI monsters are fairly impressive albeit a bit bland in appearance compared to the stunning visuals of the Chinese soldiers. The stunts are impressive and there are relatively few scenes that don’t involve action, so while the story’s disappointing at least the action keeps you engaged.
Damon, Pascal, and Willem Dafoe (playing a fellow mercenary who was kidnapped decades before by the Nameless Order) are the most recognizable names to American audiences, and unfortunately Pascal and Dafoe share the short end of the stick when it comes to character development. Zhang Hanyu (‘General Shao’), Andy Lau (‘Strategist Wang’), and Crane Corps Commander Lin Mae played by Tian Jing are the standouts of the actors cast as Chinese soldiers, and thankfully there’s only the barest hint of a possible romance between Damon’s William and Jing’s Lin Mae. Jing’s ferocious as Lin and it’s relief to see the character as a strong, fierce fighter instead of a love interest for the film’s male lead.
The Great Wall is exactly the film you’d expect after watching the trailer. It’s a colorful, special effects-laden epic that asks nothing of its audience other than to sit back and try and enjoy the action. Unfortunately, the mix of Western and Eastern sensibilities misses the mark, with the blend of styles never finding the right tone. Although Damon and Pascal toss out a few witty lines, for the most part there’s nothing all that interesting about the human actors or their CGI enemies.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy action violence
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: February 17, 2017