An unmitigated juggernaut of bad, pointless cinema, The Great Wall is what happens when globalization and movie-making meets. A historical epic-meets-monster movie ostensibly designed for Chinese and American audiences both, the latest Matt Damon vehicle fails on nearly every level. However if you can feign excitement for a sleep-walking Damon channeling Hobbit-era Legolas to shoot arrows at an endless horde of dog-raptors then please read no further; The Great Wall is the flick for you. If that does not describe your tastes then beware, you’re in store for a long walk off a short plank of stupidity. At only 90 minutes, The Great Wall somehow begins to strain credulity in the shallows of the first act and it only gets worse from there.
The year is…sometime? The non-Chinese characters are from…somewhere? And all anyone can seem to be talking about is this coveted “black powder.” The hunt for this costly, explody stuff lands anti-hero William (Damon) – a character so poorly written that I literally can’t tell you anything about him other than the fact that he wants to steal black powder and is good at archery – in hot water when he and thief pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal, better than Damon, but straining to earn laughs) encounter a mythical beast who they promptly kill with the power of magnets and steel. You heard that right: magnets, bitch!
Soon the two dirt-smeared rapscallions stand before the Great Wall – which for all its IRL majestic glory is reduced to a cheap prop that may as well have been computer graphics. Though the lavish sets frequently impress, the action upon them is stilted and stubborn, as lazy and uninspired as its dream-inducing plot.
Captured by a daunting army and forced to answer to a slew of generals of some Northern Chinese province or other – who it should be noted are decked out in hysterically colorful full-body armor, making them look like some kind of Chinese Power Rangers – the two disloyal scoundrels are questioned about how they managed to slaughter one of the Nameless Order’s near-invulnerable nemeses, not-so-menacingly called the “Taotie.”
Sworn enemies of mankind, the Taotie, CG gremlins with eyes on the sides of their heads, visit every 60-odd years to feast on the flesh of men and beast alike. There’s something about their doing so because men are greedy but the mythology – loosely adapted from an equally vague Chinese myth about an insatiable monstrosity – is so mindless and irrelevant that it deserves neither attention nor clarification. And so the thin plot of The Great Wall drags along, attempting and failing to motivate the next poorly rendered action spectacle in store with poorly rendered mythos.
That’s how The Great Wall establishes the kind of movie that awaits us. Weak stories leading to weak action. A tiring and tireless continuum of sub-mediocrity. And not only must we witness the most dumbed down, key word-heavy, international audience-friendly dialogue this side of Transformers but we must do so twice. After nearly every exchange, English is translated to Chinese by bilingual translator/member of the Nameless Order/another character completely devoid of character traits beyond “loyalty”, Commander Lin (Jin Tian).
By the hammer of Thor, the magical power of subtitles nary satisfy our need for the full brunt of language-barriered communication and Lin’s many translations assures us nervous audience members that we will indeed get to re-experience every last lick of head-hanging scripting a full second measure. For all the mysticism present in The Great Wall, disbelief shall not be suspended for lack of linguistic acumen! Once more with feeling, I say!
We’re hardly 15 minutes into the flick before the first all-out assault is launched and the film postures as if it’s Two Towers (sans literally everything that made Two Towers so epically epic). After all, without characters to care for and a story worthy of investment, all the bungee-jumping spear hucking (yes, this happens) accomplishes nothing. We have nothing and no one to care about so all of the spectacle is just kind of there. As useless as pants on a hooker.
For a director who’s made such critically acclaimed films as House of Flying Daggers and Hero, Zhang Yimou succumbs to his very worst instincts, giving a Hollywood makeover to the out-of-body magical realism that characterizes his great Chinese epics. Like an obese man with good genes, it’s big without reason. Every inch of the screen is crowded with extras (real and digital alike) simply because there is the financing for such. There’s no narrative need for 3/4s of the flashy slo-mo eyeball snipes. They’re there because 13-year old Chinese kids will “ooh” and “ahh” and that’s about it. And for a film that really does try to be epic, there is almost nothing in its DNA that makes it memorable for one second. It’s about as unforgettable as a speech someone’s shouting in a language you don’t understand. And just about as logical.
Speaking of pointless and illogical, Willem Dafoe plays a character who is at his very core representative of how pointless everything in The Great Wall is. This dude, who was captured 25 years back himself trying to snag some black powder, allies with Damon and Pascal to plot a robbery and escape. The way it goes down is so heinously unnecessary, not to mention fails to propel the narrative in any direction, that it becomes nothing more than a cheap way to occupy a little bit more time. His fate, while irrelevant, is amusing in its senseless celebration of its own pointlessness.
But all the characters are so impossibly thin and vaguely defined, the situations so familiar and stale that when Damon’s archer guy randomly shifts from self-centered rogue to altruistic hero we go along with it simply because we’ve seen similar transformations occur in similar movies. It’s as if Edward Zwick, who helped with the story, just said, “Do the White Savior thing from Last Samurai but don’t bother with the characterization stuff.” Because that’s what The Great Wall is – every Edward Zwick white savior flick without all the stuff that makes Edward Zwick’s films so damned watchable.
It wouldn’t be so obnoxious and dull were the effects work not so embarrassing and physics-proof, making the one thing that The Great Wall should have going for it ultimately hard to even watch. A late act swing from the literal and metaphorical rafters makes Damon and Tian look like rubber dolls with all the backing of 1999 VFX technology. “Aim for the eyes,” our antihero archer is repeatedly told in order to take down the Tao Tei. With everything occurring on the screen, you just might be tempted to request he take yours as well.
CONCLUSION: Like a tower defense game brought to the big screen, the grating ‘Great Wall’ is a patience-testing embarrassment for all involved. With razor-thin characters, shamelessly cliched plotting and some dreadful CGI, there is almost nothing worth remembering in this cross-cultural affront to cinema’s great epics – American and Chinese alike.