It’s rather puzzling what Matt Damon saw in “The Great Wall.” Frankly, it’s just as puzzling what director Yimou Zhang saw in the project as well. An oil and water mix from the get go, this is a would-be historical epic crossed with a creature feature. Furthermore, it’s done in such a way that the fact that it’s an English language outing is almost a joke. This is yearning to be something closer to the director’s earlier work like “Hero” or “House of Flying Daggers.” Instead, it’s much closer to his partly English language misfire “The Flowers of War.” When Matt Damon is an afterthought in a picture, you know something is wrong.
“The Great Wall” occasionally has some strong visuals, but it’s consistently muddled by a crummy script and a tonal disconnect. Taken far too seriously for what’s shown on screen, yet hardly as exciting as it could have been, very little actually works. There’s just a dearth of creativity, which is a real shame. Looking at who is involved in this endeavor, imagination should be in excess, not in high demand. This particular wall is only slightly less misguided than the one Donald Trump wants to erect. Damon fares better than that, but not by much.
The film begins with on-screen text explaining that the wall in question was built to defend against enemies both real and legend. Apparently, this movie represents one legend. Namely, that giant lizard-type monsters were quite the menace in ancient China. When traveling mercenaries William Garin (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) encounter one, they wind up the only survivors. This meeting comes in handy when they find themselves captured by the Chinese military, who have been prepping along the wall for a showdown with the creatures. They’re known as the Taotie, and go figure, they’ve long been attempting to invade China and are why that wall exists in the first place.
Bonding with a female commander in Lin (Jing Tian), William opts to stay and help them fight the repeated Taotie onslaughts. This doesn’t sit well with Tovar, who has taken the advice of prisoner Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and hopes to slip away with some treasure and avoid being eaten. Obviously, it will come down to if William can figure out a way to save the day. Considering who the star is, it shouldn’t be a big surprise how this all gets resolved.
You would have thought that Matt Damon would be a saving grace here. Sadly, however, he’s one of the main problems. It’s not necessarily his performance, though it’s pretty bland. It’s that his character is so out of place, it actually becomes distracting. William feels utterly superfluous and that’s not what you want in your protagonist. Artificially inserted into a narrative that doesn’t need him, both the film and Damon himself really do suffer. In the same way that Christian Bale didn’t help “The Flowers of War,” Damon doesn’t help “The Great Wall” in any discernible way.
Also in the cast, we notably have Andy Lau in a supporting role. Much like Dafoe, Pascal, and Tian, he doesn’t have a whole lot to do, however. Other supporting players include Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Hanyu Zhang and more. No one, including Damon, leaves much of an impression. The effects are the true stars. Frankly, the monsters come close to having more personality than the humans.
Zhang makes a concerted effort to make the battle sequences in “The Great Wall” feel epic. He only sporadically succeeds, but the money spent on this film is spent during these scenes. Employing two cinematographers in Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao, the visuals are a definite priority, to the detriment of all else. For example, the score by composer Ramin Djawadi sounds epic, but really isn’t. It also really shows during the quiet scenes, when Damon is often filmed in close up, where it could have been shot at any point in post-production. It just furthers the feeling that we didn’t need the Caucasian characters whatsoever. In fact, they hold the movie back.
The writing is what really sinks this ship. The screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, with story credits going to Max Brooks, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, is a mess. Clearly, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. The basic premise is solid enough, but again, why have this white dude at the center of it? Especially considering how this seems poised to do well internationally only, couldn’t this have just remained a Chinese production? The last time this director tried to do something like this, it was a letdown as well, so the writing should have been on the wall.
Overall, “The Great Wall” massively disappoints by any standard. Damon deserved better. This premise deserved better. Hell, audiences deserved better. As overtly designed for a foreign crowd as a “Transformers” sequel, this is an often creatively bankrupt action movie in search of a reason to exist. You probably won’t be able to find one, and truthfully, you shouldn’t bother. “The Great Wall” doesn’t do nearly enough to be worthy of your time and money.
“The Great Wall” is distributed by Universal Pictures and opens in theaters on Feb. 17.