Over the last decade or so, China has grown to become the second largest movie market in the world (and is currently on pace to surpass the U.S. in the next few years), which explains why Hollywood has suddenly shown great interest in the region. But while pairing one of the industry’s biggest stars (Matt Damon) with esteemed Chinese director Zhang Yimou might sound like an exciting idea on paper, it lacks the prestige that such a high-profile collaboration warrants. “The Great Wall” is a fairly generic monster movie at its core (think “Starship Troopers” in Ancient China), and although it boasts some fantastic visuals and rousing action that’s entertaining in the moment, it’s ultimately pretty forgettable.
In 11th century China, European mercenaries William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have ventured deep into the country in search of a mysterious black powder that will bring them riches back home. After surviving a monster attack the night before, they stumble upon a secret garrison of Chinese soldiers called the Nameless Order – each faction divided by brightly colored armor – that’s stationed at a massive wall designed to keep out invaders. Led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), the Nameless Order serves as the last line of defense against the Tao Tie, a colony of mythical creatures that crashed into China on a meteor 2,000 years ago.
Shao believes that the Tao Tie have been sent by the gods to punish humans for their greed, emerging from a nearby mountain every 60 years to attack, although this time around, they’ve arrived earlier than usual. The Tao Tei have also evolved significantly since their last confrontation, leading Shao’s main adviser, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), to devise a new plan of defense before the next invasion. Meanwhile, William and Pero plot their escape with the help of a fellow captive named Ballard (Willem Dafoe). But when William acquires a newfound sense of honor and duty after bonding with Lin Mae (Tian Jing), the beautiful but deadly commander of the high-flying, all-female Crane Corps, he decides to stay behind and fight alongside her.
“The Great Wall” isn’t the kind of film that you’d expect from an accomplished director such as Zhang Yimou. The closest he’s come to making a movie like this in the past is the one-two punch of “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” but those two wuxia films had more artistry in a single reel than the entirety of “The Great Wall.” Though Yimou injects a nice pop of color into the production and delivers some enjoyable action beats, it’s not enough to compensate for the formulaic and underdeveloped story. Damon and Jing’s characters are the only ones afforded any real depth, while the rest of the Chinese cast (save perhaps for Lau) are treated as canon fodder. Even Pascal is wasted as Damon’s quippy sidekick, seemingly only there as a reminder of his dodgy past.
Clocking in at a brisk 103 minutes, “The Great Wall” has very little on its mind beyond its B-movie premise, operating like a weird hybrid between a Hollywood swashbuckling adventure and a Chinese fantasy film. But while the attempt to blend Western and Eastern sensibilities is certainly admirable, you can feel the strain as it tries to appease both audiences, like a traditional Chinese dish reinvented using hamburgers and French fries. It’s not bonkers enough and yet too silly to be taken seriously. Though it works just fine as a piece of mindless entertainment (and this is one movie where you definitely need to check your brain at the door), “The Great Wall” really should have been better considering the level of talent involved.