One thing kept bothering me while I was watching The Great Wall, an expensive historical fantasy starring Matt Damon as a European trader who helps a Chinese army fight off a massive horde of monsters: the Wall is 5,500 miles long, so instead of trying to breach it right where the Chinese battalions are stationed, why not go a few miles down the road and climb over it there?
Questions like these usually pop up in my mind when a film is not working and I start getting distracted by plot holes and such, and in the case of The Great Wall — an American/Chinese co-production with very little vision apparent from either side — I not only began pondering the increasingly ludicrous story, but also things outside the movie, such as whether I had left my glasses in the car and how much time I should give myself the next morning to make my Logan screening.
It took six writers (three with screenplay credit and three with story credit), including talented folks like Tony Gilroy and Max Brooks, to cobble this generic would-be blockbuster together. Damon stars as William Garin, who along with his sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal), is searching in ancient China for the “black powder” that can be used to make all kinds of cool weapons and is thus a valuable commodity. After their party is attacked and decimated by first bandits and then a mysterious creature, William and Tovar find themselves prisoners of the Nameless Order — a Chinese military unit charged with guarding the Great Wall that stretches across the country.
It seems that every 60 years or so, a ravenous throng of green monsters known as Tao Tei emerge from a nearby mountain to attack the Wall and the humans behind it. William and Tovar have arrived just in time to help fend off the latest attack, while William and the commander of the Chinese forces, the beautiful Lin (Jing Tian) make eyes at each other whenever there’s a break in the rather blurry action. Of course, while Lin is no pushover and the Chinese cast in the film get a reasonable amount of screen time, it’s usually up to white savior William to continually save them.
Not only does Damon give perhaps the stiffest, most disinterested performance of his career (Pascal gets all the funny lines, which is apparently his sole job), but he’s stuck playing a stock white hero in a tedious movie that seems like it rolled off an automated assembly line. There’s absolutely no compelling reason to care about these characters or this situation, mainly because it feels artificial from the very first shot of a computer-generated Great Wall. And speaking of CG, the movie is saddled with some of the worst seen in a major production in years, with the film resembling a mediocre video game more than a piece of cinema.
Director Zhang Yimou has made beautifully designed and executed martial arts films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but the Tao Tei defeat him here. We don’t even get much of a chance to appreciate some of the film’s striking interiors and costume designs, as well as some clever touches like the hot air balloons used by the army, before everything just get piled under that amorphous green mass of scaly skin. The Tao Tei, in keeping with the rest of the film, are among the most forgettable movie monsters ever conceived, and even the back story that they emerged from a crashed meteor millennia earlier serves no particular purpose.
But then again, The Great Wall serves no particular purpose, except to mash together a lot of different elements and genres in the hope that the bland, formless mush that comes out can somehow appeal to a wide international audience. Instead, the far from great Great Wall ends up appealing to no one, and we all sit there in the theater, eyes glazing over, thinking about other things instead of the movie we’re supposed to be watching.
The Great Wall is out in theaters today (Friday, February 17).