Something is lost in translation in The Great Wall, a joint Chinese-American would-be blockbuster bash featuring Matt Damon and other attractive people fighting monsters. The premise seems perfectly simple and satisfying on paper, but that’s all there is here. At least with the North American version.
What starts fairly quickly with a massive medieval siege of the Great Wall of China, as human warriors defends themselves against a horde of green, carnivorous beasts, dissolves into something dull. It’s both disappointing and surprising. After an exciting first half hour, there is but sixty minutes left, and the story told is trite and cliched, and clearly missing something.
Perhaps something compelling wasn’t cut out (I imagine the Chinese version featured more of the Chinese characters); perhaps the filmmakers just didn’t know what to put in. Having been out for some time in China, this highest-costing film in the country’s history has done well in their domestic market, and is finally getting the rollout in America. Directed by Yimou Zhang, and written by a group of Americans including Tony Gilroy, The Great Wall is a unique co-production that in trying to appeal so carefully to so many, fails to do much of anything.
Not that The Great Wall needs to be some powerful cultural moment, or history lesson, but it should at least be some fun. Matt Damon is William, a mercenary who alongside Tovar (Pedro Pascal), has journeyed from the West to the Far East in search of black powder to gain power over others. They happen upon the Great Wall and are taken prisoner, just as its beset by ravenous beasts.
Their captors are somewhat prepared though. In a beautiful and fast-paced sequence, monsters and humans do battle, which includes some wild acrobatics and skillful shooting, mainly from the bow of William (he happens to be just the greatest shot ever, which sure, why not?) Just as the monsters appear set to overrun the wall, they leave, because the movie still has an hour to kill and a semblance of a story to tell.
The story is familiar. William takes to Commander Lin (Tian Jian), a beautiful warrior; Tovar meets a prisoner Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who has the aforementioned black powder; William has a change of heart; and a strategist for the Nameless Order has figured out that killing the Queen of the monsters will disable all the monsters. What luck!
If it’s going to have such mundane, easy storylines, whose every beat is telegraphed from the start, then it least it better add something interesting to the action. The curiosity of the monsters wears off pretty quickly: there are minions, there are some that guard the queen, and then there is the queen, who really should never leave if she is the sole way to destory their entire race. Really, don’t open yourself up to attack.
Of course, William and Lin fight and come up with a plan, and while some moments offer fun visuals and even a bit of tension, the extent to which The Great Wall is dumb and unsatisfying is too much to overcome.