"THE GREAT WALL" — 2½ stars — Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe; Andy Lau, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng; PG-13 (sequences of fantasy action violence); in general release
Taken on its own merits, "The Great Wall" is a fun and quickly forgettable B-movie monster flick that just happens to have an A-lister for its protagonist. It feels like a perfect fit for mid-February.
"The Great Wall" is about a fortune hunter who teams up with an outmatched army to fight off an invasion of lizard monsters. Matt Damon plays William, a career mercenary who has fought under various flags, but never with any true purpose. He and his partner, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), have come to China in search of gunpowder, which they hope to introduce to the West. But before they can secure any, they encounter a shadowy creature that only dumb luck allows them to kill.
Soon after, they are taken prisoner by a vast army called the Nameless Order, stationed at the Great Wall of China and preparing for the invasion of an old foe. According to legend, an alien race of monsters called Tao Tei arrived by a meteor to punish mankind's limitless greed every 60 years and, wouldn't you know it, the countdown is up.
After somehow surviving the first Lord of the Rings-style onslaught of the Tao Tei, William and Tovar are begrudgingly taken in by the Order, which is led by a striking female commander named Lin Mae (Tian Jing).
That's about as deep as the plot goes, save for a prisoner named Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who plots with Tovar to steal as much gunpowder as possible and leave everyone else to deal with the meteor lizards. For the most part, the story works to serve the action set pieces and the characters serve only their most minimal functions.
Actually, the character that stands out most is the wall itself, which is enhanced with a number of elaborate defense mechanisms. At one point, long slits in the wall uncover giant blades that slash through any man or beast who tries to scale the wall, and we first meet Commander Lin as she leads a team of spear-throwing daredevils called the Crane Corps who bungee jump off complex platforms on the wall.
All the crazy machinations make "The Great Wall" a lot more watchable than it should be, and efforts like this leave you with the impression that the filmmakers are trying to earn your ticket price. Some striking visuals and elaborate set design suggest director Yimou Zhang is trying to blend the artistry of Asian martial arts films with a West-friendly action flick, but too often the heavy emphasis on slow motion and corny, 3-D-friendly effects undercuts any serious artistic credibility.
Damon puts a familiar face in the lead role, but his character ultimately is as two-dimensional as Lin, who serves as both William's vague romantic interest and the film's strong female action co-star. Damon's casting led to accusations of whitewashing (variety.com), but that kind of issue feels appropriate for serious movies, and "The Great Wall" is just not a serious movie.
The design of the Tao Tei, who operate as a hive mind under the control of a queen, is certainly menacing, with mouths full of fangs and creepy eyes set back around the shoulder blade area. But the sheer volume of CGI beasts actually undercuts their menace a bit, and wide shots of them piling on top of each other to get over the Great Wall are evocative of the zombie attacks from 2013's "World War Z" (which actually makes sense when you see the author, Max Brooks, with a story credit).
Long story short, if you can grimace through the cheese and Damon's noncommittal accent, "The Great Wall" will keep the theater fires going until the big spring and summer releases arrive.
"The Great Wall" is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence; running time: 103 minutes.