Matt Damon fights off a horde of CGI beasties in this beautiful but unsteady action adventure
“The Great Wall” means well, and for that you can cut it some slack.
It’s a big, colorful, visually inventive would-be epic that hits stumbling blocks right out of the gate, chiefly with the casting of Matt Damon, who does not belong in an ancient Chinese fantasy. For his part, Damon looks almost embarrassed to be there, burying his charisma and his natural smile and affecting some sort of lumpy accent that makes him sound like a Midwestern drifter trying to disguise his origins.
Damon plays William Garin, a Westerner searching for gunpowder (mystically referred to here as “black powder”) who stumbles across a mysterious beast and cuts its arm off in battle. Garin and his partner Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by soldiers at the foot of the Great Wall, and when the Wall is stormed by an army of Taotie — ravenous dragon creatures, multiplied by the hundreds of thousands in sweeping, “Lord of the Rings”-style washes of CGI — Garin’s warrior skills come in handy, and he’s enlisted to help battle the bloodthirsty beasts.
The massive battle scenes are impressive, and director Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) doesn’t skimp with the size or scope of his vision. Waves (and waves, and waves) of Taotie swarm the Great Wall, and different factions of the human army — their attire color coded by their combat disciplines — fight the monsters their own ways, with one group diving from above and getting pulled back up by ropes, bungee-style.
It’s imaginative stuff, but the scenes in between the battles grind the enterprise to a halt. The characters are hollow and their interactions are stiff, especially the interplay between Damon’s character and Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the commander of the Crane Troop (or the Blues, if we’re going by colors). She is there to teach Garin about history and culture, but their human connection is strained, at least partially by their language barrier and her awkward attempts at speaking English.
Those are the types of issues that arise when making films for the global box office, and “The Great Wall” is already a massive hit overseas, having collected more than $170 million in China since opening there before Christmas. It’s meant to play to as broad an audience as possible, so everything about it is spread thin, and its attempts at humor warrant light chuckles at best.
Despite its contrivances, beauty is able to shine through. The final fight sequence is rendered through clouds of colorful dust lit through the windows of a pagoda, creating a kaleidoscopic rainbow of color that blankets the screen like fairy dust. And while the Taotie spend too much time roaring and gnashing their teeth at the screen — a problem that afflicts most CGI beasts in movies these days — their queen is a frightening creation with shades of “Alien” in her DNA. For a movie monster who can only speak by vibrating her antenna-like horns, she makes for a pretty good villain.
There are other things going on in the story — Willem Dafoe hangs around in the background as a thief in a low-level villain role — but “The Great Wall” comes down to a war between man and monster. Because of its pedigree, you may hope for more, and “The Great Wall” would have been well-served to push even further and go completely over-the-top, but it believes it’s too noble for that. It’s in a culture clash with itself.
‘The Great Wall’
Rated PG-13: for sequences of fantasy action violence
Running time: 120 minutes