My favorite part of this time of year is Hollywood unleashing big-budget movies so deliciously strange that we marvel they were made at all: An animated action-adventure that re-imagines Batman as a minifig with an ego bigger than the whole of a child’s imagination. A family film where the term “monster trucks” is made literal. An action-comedy about an extreme sports man saving the world with the help of a DJ and a human crash-test dummy. An intensely ambitious war movie that posits China’s Great Wall was actually built to keep out hordes of razor-toothed and ravenous monsters. Each film represents a gamble for its studio, and yet, the one fronted by Matt Damon and helmed by internationally renowned director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”) is the one that’s confoundingly underwhelming.
“The Great Wall” stars Damon as William, an ambiguously European mercenary (his applied accent comes and goes, flirting with Irish or Scottish tones, maybe?), who races across ancient Asia, chasing down the mysterious “black powder” that’s said to be the world’s most lethal weapon. If William and his swarthy companion Tovar (“Game of Throne’s” Pedro Pascal) can acquire this powerful (gun) powder, their fortunes will be made. But their plan is shelved once they hit the Great Wall, where the Nameless Order — a sprawling and vibrantly attired army — guards China’s capital from the onslaught of murderous monsters who rise every 60 years to wreak havoc. Though these European outsiders initially look only to escape with the powder, William is quickly enchanted by the brave Lieutenant Lin (the steely Jing Tian), and soon debates joining the Order’s fight.
A co-production between China and the US, “The Great Wall” aims to attract audiences by boasting big action sequences, a wild fantasy tale, and a charismatic cast that brandishes stars from both nations, including not only Damon, Pascal and Tian, but also Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau and pop star Junkai Wang. The promise of such an ensemble earned Yimou the biggest budget a co-production between the two nations has ever been afforded, and with all this comes sky-high expectations.
As a long-time admirer of Yimou’s, I was positively drooling to see what the visionary filmmaker could do with such resources. For the 1990 romantic drama “Ju Dou,” he used large swaths of colorful cloth to create stunning scenes as he painted a tender tale of tragedy between star-crossed lovers. Then, with films like “Hero,” “The House of Flying Dragons” and “Curse of the Golden Flower,” he folded his skill for shooting fabric into rapturous action sequences that displayed marital arts in ways equally brutal and beautiful. Combine his talent for turning war into jaw-dropping spectacle with the star power of the ever-affable Damon and the sensual swagger of Pascal, and how could it go wrong? Well, miscasting Damon is a start.
William is meant to be a fearsome warrior and merciless mercenary, one who cares more for his own skin than anything else. When he proudly recounts all the flags he’s fought under for money, a horrified Lin suggests he is a man without honor — but we know that’s not true. Matt Damon doesn’t do bad guys, so it’ll be mere minutes before William shrugs off his apathy to join the fight of the Nameless Order. Casting such a well-known “good guy” in this role kills the dramatic tension of William’s arc right out the gate with its inevitability. Then, every scene where William verbally debates with Tovar about what they should do is tedious, not dramatic. If only Damon and Pascal had switched parts.
Tovar is essentially William’s shady sidekick, who has all the quips and none of the inner-conflict over honor. Pascal slays in the part, landing every punch line, and livening up “The Great Wall’s” dirge-like dialogue. Yet Damon showed in “The Martian” he can be an excellent wise-ass, so he’d have done well as Tovar. Then Pascal could have channeled the bad boy appeal — that made “Game of Thrones'” Oberyn Martell an instant fan favorite — into his role here where it’d have better served the story. Pascal’s smirks and swagger could have sharply sold a reluctant hero, where Damon’s boy scout persona is at war with the part from his first frame.
To his credit, Damon is more than comfortable in the film’s many fight sequences, adding a credible weight to William and Tovar’s back-to-back battles with beasties. But overall, the action bits are a mixed bag.
At its best, “The Great Wall” is eye-popping with color, inventive in its stunts, and thrilling in its fight choreography. A major highlight is Lin’s all-female squad of bungee-jumping warriors. Decked out in brilliant blue armor, they swan dive from the wall’s perches to lunge spears through the snarling monsters below, before masterfully swirling back up to safety. There’s also sensationally dizzying sweeps through a battlefield of nightmarish beasts with menacing maws, armor-like skin and a lethal precision to move on a dime from their cruel queen’s reverberating instruction. But at the film’s worse, the battles becomes an ugly mess of muddy CGI beasts blurring together, or some sloppily chopped action that chucks geography and logic in favor of saving some screen time. Most vexingly, William’s first confrontation with these creatures is so crudely cut from close-up to un-established wide-shot that you’d be lost as to what even occurred if it weren’t for some heavy-handed expository dialogue.
Regrettably, this groundbreaking co-production comes to less than the sum of its parts. Its Chinese stars are given little time to shine, save for Tian, and her storyline is cluttered with a stiff romantic subplot with William that feels more afterthought that earned. Despite clear earnestness, Damon feels out of place, and is outshone by the scene-stealer Pascal. There is some sensational action, grounded with breathtaking blows and imaginative elements like the bungee jumping brigade, embedded boobytraps, and experimental hot air balloons. But the clunkiness of the films hero’s journey mixed with some jarringly subpar fight scenes makes for a clunky ride. All in all, “The Great Wall” is good, not great.
“The Great Wall” is in theaters now.