PLOT: Sometime during China's Song dynasty, two European mercenaries find themselves captured by the Great Wall of China's steadfast "Nameless Order," an army of hundreds committed to protecting the wall, and everything beyond, from a horde of ancient creatures.
REVIEW: There are enough elements at play to make THE GREAT WALL a sensational experience, so it's a shame that it works best as a guilty pleasure. Directed by the legendary Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou (HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), you wouldn't be wrong to expect this $150 million Chinese-American co-production to be an epic on an extraordinary scale. What it ends up being is a mildly engaging, surprisingly goofy B-movie with all the bells and whistles of a wannabe blockbuster. Not inept enough to be a disaster, but surely too inconsequential to be anything more than a watchable creature feature.
The creatures in question are the Tao Tei, who live in the mountains near the northern border of China, destined to try to break through the Great Wall every 60 years or so. (Why only every 60 years? Dunno.) These are cheesy looking things, lizard-like monstrosities that scamper around rapidly on all fours under the control of an intelligent queen that controls their every move with sound vibrations. The Tao Tei are just here to eat everything in their path, and the proud, centuries-old soldiers known as the "Nameless Order" stand on the wall waiting for them. (Think of them as a thoroughly prepared, much more colorful version of The Night's Watch.) The Nameless Order has outfitted the wall with plenty of intricate weapons and defenses, but it would appear as though the creatures get smarter with every new siege, so this latest battle may see the Order finally giving way to the toothy beasts, which would then eventually destroy the capital and the world beyond.
Enter great white hope William (Matt Damon), a European mercenary, and his quick-witted Spanish sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Seeking the fabled "black powder," William and Tovar are captured by the Order and sentenced to certain doom. But William's supreme talent with a bow attracts the interest of the Order's female commander Lin (Jing Tian) and the rest of the high command. While William endeavors to help out the Order, Tovar plans to escape with the help of a shady fellow named Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who has been living with the Order for 20 years and seeks a way out. But that's all set-up, most of it rote and dreary. We're here for monsters, and monsters litter the screen early and often. (I will hand it to THE GREAT WALL, its first massive action scene takes about ten minutes to get to.)
It's a boring movie to describe because it's only when the monsters attack that our interest is grabbed. Hordes of the beasts attempt to ascend the wall while the Order executes all kinds of ingenuitive defensive schemes, like employing lady warriors who fly off the wall to slice and dice the things, or giant scissors that emerge from the wall to chop them in half. All of this stuff is actually pretty entertaining, and Zhang shoots it well. The way the soldiers work together, in their color-coded uniforms, using ornate weapons to protect their territory, is clearly what Zhang is interested in, and it separates this movie from the large pack of monster-siege movies. The battle sequences in THE GREAT WALL could have been monotonous drudgery if handled by a hack, but Zhang's innate talent with a camera keeps things bouncing along eventfully. And even if the monsters could look better, the beautiful costumes and impressive art direction always give us something pleasing to look at.
Dramatically, the movie is a snooze, with Zhang unable to add a charge to scenes that are filled with wholly predictable dialogue. (Six writers are credited for some reason.) There's no doubt in my mind that Zhang would have been more invested in a movie that was simply about the order, their impressive machinations and their varying codes of honor, but he's tied to exposition about the monsters, which dominates almost every human interaction. Unless there's a battle going on, things rarely get moving in a compelling direction.
It's surely no coincidence that all of the Chinese actors exude far more dignity and charisma than Damon. Playing a soldier-for-hire, Damon certainly looks as if he's waiting out the days until he can cash his paycheck. William is supposed to be the strong-silent type, but Damon is clearly bored, and an indescribable accent (Irish?) that comes and goes doesn't help things. Jing Tian is quite appealing as the strong-willed commander, and the always-terrific Andy Lau stands out as one of the order's chief strategists. Pascal does what he can with a role that is little more than one-liners, most of which fall flat, but the actor is charming enough to elicit a few scattered chuckles despite the lameness of his material.
Bottom line is, when looked at as nothing more than a disposable monster mash with a handful of eye-catching sequences, THE GREAT WALL is acceptable. But considering the talent behind the camera, and the effort put into the exemplary costumes and production design, it's frustrating to think that it might have been, yes, great.