The big joke about this week’s movie, that Matt Damon, of all people, is in ancient China fighting alongside colorful soldiers atop the titular Great Wall, turns out to be the least ridiculous part of the film. That doesn’t mean it’s good, just bad for different reasons.
The film opens with Damon, as William, and a cadre of Spanish mercenaries riding across the dunes in the desert region of China, being pursued by a gang of bandits. The bandits are bad, but when our heroes make camp for the night, they run across something worse. William and his compatriot Tovar manage to kill the beast that attacks their camp, but not before it kills the rest of their party.
Taking the monster’s claw as proof, the two set out again, only to run smack into the largest, longest wall they’d ever seen. I’m not sure how they missed seeing a 5,500 mile-long, 25-foot tall wall, but it sure snuck up on them. William and Tovar are immediately taken prisoner, the Chinese soldiers being understandably jumpy about white people showing up on their doorstep.
Or maybe they’re jumpy about something else. A quick death sentence appears to be in order until William pulls out the claw. This causes a stir. The reason for the army’s high-alert status becomes more clear. It seems that the wall, and all of China, apparently, are under attack from a horde of blood-thirsty monsters. Are they demons? Dragons? Aliens? Your guess is as good as mine, but they are certainly not to be trifled with.
Soon, as a matter of survival, William and Tovar join the fight. Their real mission is to try and obtain, by hook or by crook, the fantastic new Chinese invention known as black powder, but in light of their new circumstances, that will have to wait. Besides, our heroes are not the only Westerners about. Willem Dafoe is Ballard, a German who also came to try and get the black powder twenty five years previous. Since then he has been captive, but his luck may have changed.
However, the only luck anyone will have is bad if the monsters, the Tao Tei, can’t be stopped. If they overrun the capital, they will have a base from which to overrun the entire world. Unless Matt Damon has anything to say about it.
Yes, the old white savior storyline is problematic in “The Great Wall,” but honestly that was the part of the movie that made the most sense. I can see mercenaries trying to acquire as valuable a weapon as gunpowder, and traveling long distances to do it. William is supposed to be Irish, I think, though he wisely keeps the accent to a minimum.
The rest of the movie is mix of interesting visuals and lazy writing. Director Yimou Zhang, who gave us “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” has a real flair for dramatic visuals, and in those former films, it served him well. Here there are some beautiful shots, but they don’t serve the story particularly well, even going so far as to pull me out. One such example: As the monsters swarm about the bottom of the wall, a massive, elaborate system of pulleys and platforms is deployed at the top of the wall. Beautiful warrior women in blue stride out to the edge of the extended platform in unison and then turn as one to receive their spear, hurled from the edge of the wall. Attached to ropes, the women leap into the abyss, bungee jumping to just above the monsters’ heads, stabbing one with a spear, and then, hopefully, being pulled to safety to do it all again.
Looks cool. Makes no sense. Why the system of pulleys and platforms? Why not just extend a plank over the edge of the wall and use a block and tackle? Why toss the spears from the edge of the wall to the waiting soldier on the platform? They can’t carry it out there? Finally, why do it at all? Arrows are more effective and less risky, and they have those aplenty. But, then you wouldn’t get to see those blue acrobats leaping into a den of giant lizards.
There are few things about “The Great Wall” that keep it from being a terrible movie. The acting is fine, and the characters are generally relatable, although I never really bought William’s motivation to help the soldiers. Some of the dragon battles are kind of cool, though they get old pretty quick.
The movie ends up being somewhat tedious, punctuated by moments of style, as well as example after example of lazy writing. Plot points and scenarios are set up without ever being considered. The big worry for the soldiers is that the monsters will somehow find a way to get through the wall, but it’s as though the writers forgot that they’d already blown this point in the first five minutes. William and Tovar kill a monster on the China side of the wall. Then again, if William and his gang were trying to get to China, how is it that they are already on the side of the wall that supposedly doesn’t have all the monsters? That’s the China side. So did they just ride past the capital and not notice?
Stuff like that drives me crazy. There’s more, but it all adds up to bad writing, and all the fancy set pieces and monster fights in the world aren’t going to solve that.
“The Great Wall” is rated PG-13 for monster violence.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.