Some probably watched "The Great Wall" and wondered how big American movie star Matt Damon wound up in the middle of an elaborate Chinese fantasy epic. I watched "The Great Wall" and wondered how beloved director Zhang Yimou wound up helming an action spectacular full of CGI monsters and flashy action scenes. Zhang is no stranger to epics, having given us "Hero" and "Curse of the Golden Flower," among others. This one, however, was just so blatantly, unabashedly... Hollywood.
Anyway, back to Matt Damon, who is playing a medieval European mercenary named William. He and his Spaniard buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have come to China in search of "black powder," which will make them powerful and rich. They come across the Great Wall one day, which is manned by Chinese soldiers of the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). Our heroes are captured just in time to witness and join in a siege on the wall by swarming monsters called Tao Tie. Their efforts garner enough favor that the pair are treated as guests, though still regarded as prisoners. William becomes close to a female commander, Lin (Jing Tian), complicating his plans to steal black powder from the Order and escape.
Now, despite the participation of so much Chinese talent, and its co-production status, "The Great Wall" was conceived of and written by Americans. Familiar names with screenplay and story credits include Max Brooks, Tony Gilroy, and Edward Zwick, who was supposed to direct at one point. You can definitely see the influence of Zhang Yimou all over the visuals, and it appears that he was largely allowed to orchestrate all the massive scale spectacle to his own liking. And that's a major selling point of the film, where vast sums of money were spent to wow the audience with gargantuan battle sequences, CGI monsters, and all manner of action movie mayhem. And taken individually, some of those elements aren't bad. The film as a whole, however, leaves much to be desired.
While the Chinese elements certainly make "The Great Wall" distinctive, the story is formulaic and bland. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal get to do a little humorous bantering, but otherwise there's not much to their characters. On the Chinese side, the Nameless Order members aren't token Asians, but they're similarly unmemorable, and most end up as cannon fodder. Andy Lau features prominently as a strategist, but he doesn't get to do anything interesting and displays little by way of personality. The best thing I can say about Jing Tian is that her English is better than most of the Chinese actresses who have attempted similar translator roles recently. Oh, and Willem Dafoe shows up for a couple of scenes as another Western mercenary, really a plot device in search of a character.
There's plenty that the production does well, from the gorgeous cinematography to the eye-catching costuming, to the stunt work. I found myself admiring the tower sequence, which is illuminated by sunbeams coming through rainbow-colored glass windows. Even the CGI monsters, while not particularly memorable, wouldn't look out of place in a typical summer blockbuster produced by one of the bigger Hollywood studios. However, none of it is put in service of anything worth talking about. As the fight sequences began to pile up on top of each other, I found myself making comparisons to other tedious recent effects-fests like "Gods of Egypt" and the "Ben Hur" remake.
I understand that the Chinese are trying to capture the attention of western audiences by making films that fit their sensibilities, but here they've only succeeded in mimicking the worst habits of the big Hollywood blockbusters. In the end, the whole project struck me as a massive waste of talent and effort on the part of everyone involved. And it reminded me that I'd totally missed Zhang Yimou's last film, "Coming Home," which had excellent reviews but only the barest stateside release in 2015.
I understand that though the movie largely made its money back overseas, the failure of "The Great Wall" at the U.S. box office will likely mean fewer of these costly Chinese and American co-productions in the future. And I don't view that as a bad thing in the slightest.