When it was announced that Matt Damon would be starring in a big budget movie about the Great Wall of China, there was a bit of an uproar over what seemed to be a piece of ridiculous casting given Hollywood’s tenuous history with Asian representation. Little did people realize that The Great Wall was a multinational collaboration between China and Hollywood, and the movie wasn’t exactly going to be a piece of great historical accuracy. As it stands, The Great Wall is an extremely goofy would-be epic of the mythical battle between the Chinese and team of murderous psychic lizards with the wall itself is more like Batman’s utility belt, capable of doing whatever the story requires. Those fearing that The Great Wall would be like an updated version of The Conqueror (the famous misfire where John Wayne played Genghis Khan) should take comfort in knowing that this movie probably has more in common with Warcraft. In attempting to make a movie that appeals to two cultures, the makers of The Great Wall have made a movie that appeals to nobody.
William (Damon) is a medieval mercenary traversing the Asian continent in the hopes of acquiring “black power,” gun powder which they can sell for a great fortune in the western world. Where is exactly William is from is a bit of a mystery that is exacerbated by whatever accent is employing in any given scene. William and the Spaniard Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive a harrowing encounter with a mysterious creature that killed most of their travelling party. The two make their way to the foot of the Great Wall, where they’re greeted with extreme suspicion until they reveal the limb of the beast that they killed the other night. It turns out that William and Tovar have stumbled into a war that dates backs thousands of years, with the people of China battling these killer lizards called Tao Tei who emerge every 60 years. Soon William gains the trust of Commander Lin (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), among the leaders of the Nameless Order, leading the battle against the creatures. But these creatures keep evolving and the battle for China’s survival hinges on the bravery along…the Great Wall.
Lurking in the shadows of The Great Wall is Willem Dafoe as Ballard, a man familiar with the destructive power of the black powder but has been trapped in China for the past quarter century as the Chinese leadership is reluctant to allow the gunpowder to fall into the wrong hands. Therein lies the film’s moral tale of greed versus duty, with William, Tovar, and Ballard serving as a western invaders without the deep-seated loyalty that defines the Chinese forces.
The Great Wall is a bad movie, but at least it’s an entertaining bad movie. Damon tries to bring his action star charms to the role of William by adding a few quips here and there, yet they rarely work as intended because it’s easier to laugh at the wobbly accent work of the star. The Chinese stars of The Great Wall avail themselves well in their bilingual performances, and there’s a certain talent to delivering the film’s absurd dialogue with a straight face in Chinese and English. That script, credited to six different writers (screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy from a story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz), is a doozy with wooden dialogue that is forcefully blunt and escalating scenarios of increasing banality.
Everything about The Great Wall is just so over-the-top in its silliness, from the color coordinated uniforms of the Chinese soldiers that resemble the costumes from Power Rangers to the all-powerful psychic lizards that are the bane of China’s existence. Director Yimou Zhang seems to be having fun with the material, and crafts some fairly decent action sequences out of CG-soaked frames in 3D. Zhang loves using 3D as a means to have arrows fling towards the camera, and then following it all the way to its target. There’s no shortage of spectacle within The Great Wall but so little of it has meaning aside from just sheer showmanship, just barreling forward with an array of set pieces that barely cohere.
If you ever wanted to see Matt Damon save China from an attack by the lizards from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, The Great Wall is the movie you’ve been waiting for. The film features some decent production design and effects but is constantly upping the ante of its insanity, making the movie a dumb but mildly entertaining piece of B-movie fare. Having Matt Damon headline a film about the Great Wall of China may seem like a misguided decision, but once you’ve seen The Great Wall it really takes a backseat to the many other misguided decisions in this bizarro movie.