One Hero to Save Them All: "The Great Wall" not good but amusingly dopey
The Great Wall (2017)
103 min., rated PG-13.
Historians and the accuracy police probably won’t be too amused, but one of the enduring wonders of the world finally gets its own goofy period fantasy-spectacle with “The Great Wall.” The first English-language film by influential filmmaker Zhang Yimou (he of 2002’s “Hero” and 2004’s “House of Flying Daggers,” just to name a few), this China-Hollywood co-production is positioned as an expensive tentpole made to bring in the widest international audience. Even with a badly miscast Matt Damon playing 11th-century dress-up with his hair tied back into a ponytail and doing battle with CG lizard monsters, it doesn’t make a total mockery of itself, but beyond having a few visual pleasures going for it, “The Great Wall” isn’t really worth anyone’s while, either.
Pursued by Khitan bandits in China during the Song dynasty, a group of Westeners is searching for “black powder” (gun powder). When they set up camp at night, they are soon attacked by a monster, which kills most of the men but has its hand sliced off by Irish mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon). He and Spanish soldier Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive and then find themselves at the gate of the 5,500 mile-long Great Wall to punish mankind for its greed. General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) is ready for a siege by those same monsters, referred to as the Tao Tai, who rise every 60 years, and when William shows them the severed hand as a trophy, it makes Shao and his Nameless Order, including Commander Lin (Jing Tian), believe this Westener might be a great warrior. All he has to do is kill the queen of the Tao Tai.
There are a lot of hands in the pot with screenwriters Tony Gilroy (2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro (2010’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), along with Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz credited for story, but “The Great Wall” is pretty uninteresting on a scripting level. It actually might have been better off being entirely in subtitles because dialogue meant to be serious produces more laughs than the attempts at one-liners, which fall flat almost every time. Every so often, the film redeems itself with a moment of tension, like when two monsters trap General Shao’s people from both sides on the wall, or an exciting battle sequence, primarily one shrouded in fog when William slides down a rope to the ground on the other side of the wall and only the whistling of the arrows charging at the monsters can be heard.
Matt Damon lends star power (and a vaguely Irish accent that slips in and out) but looks unsure of himself when not fighting with his bow as William Garin, a slimly rounded protagonist. He’s apparently been left for dead twice before and even his partner calls him a “thief” and a “killer,” but William’s arc to a valiant hero that China needs lacks tension. And, yes, he’s kind of a “white savior,” which wouldn’t be a problem if one didn’t think the Nameless Order was fully capable without him with their warfare, acrobatic skills, and color-coordinated uniforms. When he’s not having a light banter with Damon, Pedro Pascal (Netflix’s “Narcos”) comes across as a personality-free dud as William’s sidekick Tovar. As prisoner Ballard, Willem Dafoe has so little of interest to do that he often looks clueless as to how he got finagled into this role. Considering English is not her first language, Jing Tian should get a pass, but she is sometimes laughably stiff; at least she doesn’t have to be held back by an obligatory romance with Damon.
Rather dopey and kind of amusing, “The Great Wall” is competent but dispensable filmmaking. The scale of some of the action sequences match the $150-million budget, and tech credits are passable enough for a theatrical release. Some fun does come out of the effects shots of the monsters galloping in slow-motion toward William before being stabbed in the mouth, and the fact that the Great Wall can lift itself up slightly to trigger a set of blades that slice up the monsters climbing the structure is a cool detail. The visual effects of the monsters themselves are vicious creations, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, but at a certain point, one realizes they sound exactly like the velociraptors from “Jurassic Park” and look similar to the aliens from “Alien.” Though it’s sometimes outlandishly silly enough to not be a complete slog, “The Great Wall” might be more diverting after consuming a lot of cocktails.