When I think about China’s Song dynasty, the first thing that comes to mind is Matt Damon. You too, right? A movie like The Great Wall is just screaming for a “William” to save the day, because native warriors surely can’t fend for themselves (duh). A little whitewashing, a dash of CGI monsters and voilà! You’ve got yourself a generic slash-em-up atop, in front of and behind China’s most wondrous landmark. Director Yimou Zhang splatters rocky landscapes with colorful costumes and fiery explosions, but it’s not enough to salvage snooze-worthy drama whenever characters start to jabber. Did you expect something more than swift monster mutilation? I seriously hope not, you crazy loon.
Damon’s William is but a weary mercenary looking for some magical weapon known as “black powder.” The Chinese possess it, so he sets out with a party to “barter.” After a harsh spell of travel, William and partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are greeted by drawn weapons at one of the Great Wall’s many gates. Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) questions the two, but before long, the massive structure is attacked by creatures known as Tao Tei (four-legged nightmares with eyes on their shoulders, berserkers and a hive-mind Queen). William and Tovar find themselves caught amidst an unbelievable battle, one that only occurs every 60 years when the Tao Tei re-emerge. Do the European visitors stay and fight, or sneak some “black powder” out the back entrance while soldiers tangle with mythical beasts?
Unsurprisingly, The Great Wall is all death-dealing and no talk. Can’t tell characters apart during combat? Have no fear! Battalions are color-coded, from red hawk-crested archers to blue Crane Corps femme fatales. As a unit, Zhang’s Chinese army is defined by primitive Power Rangers suits and antique weaponry that makes for some simplified siege-set warfare. Details are sparse otherwise, so soak in the radiant yellows, raven-dark blacks, and all the militaristic fabulousness while you can. Otherwise, we’re stuck watching Zhang cram extras into tiny hallways, as they jog in synchrony while wearing brightly-hued armor.
When tower defenses aren’t halving animated beasties like Jason Voorhees might a camp counselor, William carries out his frivolous “romance” with Commander Mae. He’s the dashing Caucasian male with an unidentifiable accent (Eastern European? Irish?), she’s the master warrioress who obviously can’t subdue her womanly hormones. Back and forth they push cultural backgrounds on one another, in the most forced, boring of fashions. Good on William for letting Commander Mae deliver a critical blow with zero seconds on the clock – very Max Rockatansky of him – but otherwise, their banter is meaningless. Come to think of it, most non-battle exchanges could have been eliminated in favor of more “arrow time” killshots (think The Matrix‘s “bullet time,” but with arrows). William and Tovar’s bromance aside, exposition predictably questions outsider ethics while fumbling easy dramatic beats.
On the plus side, The Great Wall preaches female empowerment. Not only are Commander Mae’s Crane Corps the first into battle (diving gracefully off the Great Wall), they’re the first to be ferociously eaten by Tao Tei mongrels! Y’all cried for equality, right? Not like PG-13 violence ever gets particularly graphic, anyway. Blood barely drips out of fatal wounds, and most Tao Tei chomps are too quick for a gruesome death sequence. Action is chaotic, but when fluid enough, brings a high-flying artistry to more barbaric, sword-and-shield squabbles. Catapults launch flaming spheres, archery turrets fling arrows and “black powder” blows Tao Tei invaders to gooey smithereens – at least when blurry camera whips and choppy 3D conversions aren’t scuffing up visuals.
Plot holes are plentiful, but don’t worry about that. You’ll stop caring long before Commander Mae reveals a ground-level entrance that would have made numerous escapes easier. Willem Dafoe has a semi-important role as Ballard, but his motivations only lead to a sneaky, forgettable arc. Even the Tao Tei legend fails to establish a dynamic backstory, with passing mentions of past greed and a starving leader. Am I becoming redundant yet? Every second spent in safety will have you screaming for William’s next act of heroism, unable to stomach another cheesy Tovar pun or creepy Ballard glare.
Plainly, The Great Wall focuses on William far too often. There are so many other Chinese characters – Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Commander Chen (Kenny Lin) – but they’re only purpose is to serve William’s redemption arc. Funny how in a Chinese war hedged against supernatural doom, we’re supposed to care about one dude who just wants to feel better about himself. It took six writers to insert Matt Damon into a Great Wall movie, driving a flat Chinese story with “White-Man Heroics.” Trust? Pride? Honor? Psh, why care about that when you can sell marketing materials with an A-List American actor? It’s 47 Ronin all over again – except the battles are just a wee bit more Starship Troopers (try NOT drawing that comparison).
The Great Wall is like the disaster of 47 Ronin all over again, except the action is a bit more fantastically barbaric and Damon isn't all that bad himself.