The Great Wall is huge in China, and so is the movie of the same name. China is a rapidly emerging box office market and The Great Wall has already earned over $147 million after being released there in December.
This says nothing of quality of course, but with Hollywood ready to further tap that marketplace, it’s worth noting because of the fusion of those involved in this production. The Great Wall is the first largely English-language film for visionary director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), working with a big American star and a team of three Hollywood screenwriters, plus three more with story credits. If Chinese box office results aren’t a predictor of quality, six writing credits might be.
The mixture isn’t a total bust, nor is it overly offensive because of the whitewashing controversy. The major problem is that it’s so flavorless. Zhang manages some epic scale with sweeping shots of the fortified wall and a few scenes of stillness amid the chaos, though repetitive mayhem (and some pretty unsteady CGI) grows tiresome. The hero’s journey is also strictly by-the-numbers. There are no surprises, not even with the supernatural beasts that are on the attack.
Quick on-screen text tells us about The Great Wall’s construction, noting there are facts and legends surrounding its purpose. This, were told, “is one of the legends.”
Matt Damon plays William, a Western warrior searching China for the fabled black (gun) powder. You’d think he and his mercenary friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) would try a city instead of the desolate Eurasian Steppe, but whatever. After slaying a mysterious animal and saving its clawed hand, the duo is captured by a military battalion called The Nameless Order – an awesomely ironic moniker – stationed on the wall. At first held prisoner, William and Tovar curry favor by helping to repel a horde of monsters called Tao Tei, lizard-like creatures that look like more evolved and vicious versions of the hellhounds from Ghostbusters.
The first extended battle is frenetic and exhilarating, quickly cutting between different color-coded divisions of The Nameless Order, some that shoot arrows, some that use catapults to launch flaming spikey balls, and some that are foot soldiers. The “Crane Corps” is comprised of women who bungee jump from the wall and poke the Tao Tei with spears. It may not be the most practical strategy, but it looks pretty cool.
After learning there’s gun powder on the premises, William and Tovar can choose to grab it and run with the help of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow Westerner who’s been detained in the wall for a quarter-century. Or, they can stay and fight with Lin (Jing Tian), a beautiful commander who conveniently knows English. William’s choice doesn’t come as a shock; thankfully, the moment isn’t overdramatized.
The bland lesson is one of trust and honor, repeated several times in case we were nodding off during one the many conversations that are had twice – first in Mandarin (with subtitles) and then audibly translated to English, or vice versa.
Plainness permeates nearly every aspect of the film. William and Tovar have a buddy-cop-like repartee, exchanging banal battlefield quips that are more commentary than character-building. Accents are also unplaceable and inconsistent. The story of the creatures and their attack methodology is uninteresting, and it’s really lazy to have this centuries-long ordeal come down to something akin to taking out the mothership in a sci-fi movie or uploading a virus in a cyberthriller. At least there’s a nice little swerve in the obligatory “last chance” shot at success.
The characters are just chessmen (and women) combatants, moved from set piece to set piece as needed to showcase some special effects. After the first fun siege, the sights become as dull as the story because there are only so many ways to impale a beast with an arrow or blow it up. Zhang wrings tension by staging one of the attacks in dense fog, slowing tracking the wall before the assault. The dramatic release of several sky lanterns is also striking.
Sadly, however, there’s no consequence to the sporadic artistry and every filmmaking brick that builds The Great Wall is painfully perfunctory.