Matt Damon became a lightning rod of controversy when the Chinese based production of the “The Great Wall” was first announced and he was its star. The thinly veiled attempt at identity politics that was ruffling the feathers of social media was not good publicity for this film. Now that this film has been released is Matt the savior of the Chinese people against an army of mythical monsters or is Damon the “White Devil” intent on destroying the Chinese film industry?
“The Great Wall” begins with William Garin, played by Matt Damon, and the mercenary group he leads in China searching for a “black powder” that could change the course of history. As Garin and his crew are being chased by bandits, they seek refuge in a cave and attacked by an unknown beast and take it down. As they escape the cave the group happenstance upon an army and a wall the likes of which they’ve never seen. Garin and his mercenaries are captured by a military order holding the wall steadfast against a deluge of otherworldly creatures intent on, what the army believes, is punishment for the current emperor’s behavior towards the kingdom and its people. Garin and his crew are unwittingly recruited as warriors against the threat and commended by the Chinese army for their skills. As soon as they are recruited they meet Ballard, played by Willem Dafoe, who years before was also in search of the “black powder” and have concocted a plan to steal a storeroom full of “black powder” that the army currently holds and escape with the goods while the army is distracted by the feral beasts they fight against. But will a woman and Garin’s conscious get the better of him and help the army destroy the threat for good?
“The Great Wall” is talented director, Zhang Yimou’s attempt at paying homage to a fantastical Chinese legend. Yimou has a storied filmography including the fantastic film that was banned by China, “To Live” starring Gong Li. Sadly, “The Great Wall” is not one of his best efforts. The film is serviceable, but doesn’t have the gravitas to rise above it’s B movie inclinations. Damon does carry himself well enough here, but sounds more like an 80’s action star acting in grunts and three word sentences. Damon does make for a decent action star, as evidenced by his turn by Jason Bourne, but here he seems a bit out of his element. On the other hand, Tian Jing as Commander Lin Mae is tremendous. She plays a warrior who holds her own and she is engaging to behold. When she’s on screen and plays opposite of Damon is when the film shines. It was also nice to see the great Andy Lau of “Infernal Affairs” fame strut about the screen as the strategist and war counselor. This film’s biggest strength and weakness is the highly CGI’d action sequences. While the action on screen is quite the spectacle the CGI’d monsters don’t hold muster. It’s unfortunate that the effects seem to be a notch or two above a Syfy channel film of the week. Although, I was impressed by the look of the battle armor and the acrobatics on display.
“The Great Wall” is a film that relied on star power and not power of story. I will say the strongest story element was a political one that broached the subject of protecting what you hold dear against a nefarious outside force, supernatural or otherwise. Even a bit of East vs. West ideological clashes. Luckily, the political theme is not too heavy handed. The movie does have a few bright spots including the first and last big battle sequences that were reminiscent of a “Lord of the Rings” film. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t save this film from utter mediocrity. While “White Devil” Damon may not have collapsed the Chinese film industry with his starring role here, he does just enough to be the hero the Chinese people have been begging for, at least when you look at the box office receipts of “The Great Wall” in its native China.