Monster Action Carries The Day In "The Great Wall"

The motley career of screenwriter-turned-action-star Matt Damon gets more motley with United States-China co-production “The Great Wall.”

Directed by Yimou Zhang (“House Of Flying Daggers”), the film is uniquely unconcerned with the user-friendliness of its own title, shutting out viewers disinclined to its wacky wavelength. Admittance doesn’t just require a raging sweet tooth for creature features; the movie is a punitive exercise for those averse to its oxymoronic big-budget B-movie leanings, leaving unbelievers to spend 90 minutes looking for crumbs of historical drama where there are none. Skimpy on plot and even skimpier on history, “The Great Wall” proudly goes off with a 100 to 0 ratio of brawn to brains.

And yet, its splashy battle sequences are the real deal. They ooze with the kind of simple thrills that so many dark, convoluted blockbusters miss out on – thrills that will scratch a hard-t0-reach itch for many.

Damon headlines as westerner William Garin, a bearded mercenary crossing 11th century China in search of black powder. After he and partner Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) fend off a surprise attack from a shadowy beast, they keep a trophy – the creature’s arm. It proves revelatory. The duo is soon imprisoned inside the Great Wall by a Chinese military order led by a general named Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and a strategist named Wang (Andy Lau). The Chinese are astonished by the westerners’ souvenir; they anticipated an attack by gigantic green monsters known as the Tao Tei, but not so soon. The rest of the film is spent battling the beasts from high atop the Wall, then at the Wall’s base, and finally, in the capital of Bianjiang, with Garin growing into the ally the Chinese didn’t know they wanted. His mythical arching skills become indispensable.

Damon lends Garin a gloriously silly accent – part woodsman, part shaman – injecting just enough personality into a husk of a character. The script, unsurprisingly bearing a bushel of “screenplay by” and “story by” credits, drops the ball with our hero right off the bat. It provides us so little information about him that by the time his shady past comes into focus, it hardly matters. Willem Dafoe’s Sir Ballard is similarly one-dimensional, a famous European who traveled to China decades prior in search of black powder and stayed. Ballard’s presence is little more than a storytelling device, bridging East and West, eventually providing a schism between Garin and Tovar. Dafoe is all but wasted.

The battle sequences are something, though. Zhang finds glee and beauty in his monsoon of exploding monster guts, surprising time and again with his commitment to carnage. His is a PG-13 movie in rating only, gorging on gratuitous (albeit monster-based) violence wherever possible. The final capital-set action sequence is a dazzling dance between prismatic lighting and cascading alien bodies, only made possible by the coalescence of American and Chinese moviemaking sensibilities; of big stars and even bigger spectacle. The climax alone is enough to justify the picture’s existence.

Lamentably, the Chinese cast mostly gets lost in the din, with only Jing Tian as Commander Lin Mae making an impression. At times her performance threatens to rise above the hollowness of her character.

But the movie is emphatically not a character or actor driven piece. It exists to move us with sight and sound – quite literally in the case of IMAX 3D showings – performing a duty that most modern blockbusters shirk: marrying state of the art visuals to outrageously simplistic storytelling. In this way, director and star take an explosive arrow to the language barrier. There is absolutely nothing to be confused by in their movie – quite a find in itself. Accompanied by a truckload of alien intestines and yet another unlikely performance from Matt Damon, “The Great Wall” can’t help but make a monster-sized impression.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 17, 2017
Studio: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Carlo Bernard, Douglas Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Wang Junkai, Zheng Kai, Cheney Chen, Huang Xuan, Andy Lau
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy action violence)