Review Matt Damon's 'The Great Wall' crumbles in epic fashion

"The Great Wall" is poised to take a great fall, creating the kind of mess not seen since Humpty Dumpty sat on a similar structure. All the king's horses and all the king's men (and there are a lot of them here) won't be able to put this snore of a movie together again.

Starring Matt Damon, the veteran Andy Lau and a host of Chinese stars and directed by the esteemed Zhang Yimou, "The Great Wall" was supposed to be a game-changer, proof that the burgeoning Chinese film industry could make a blockbuster that would be successful on Western screens. Not this time.

As the presence of gifted actors like Damon and Lau, not to mention a budget estimated to be in the $150-million range testify, this misbegotten movie, the largest ever shot entirely in China, didn't happen because things were done on the cheap.

Rather "The Great Wall" is a failure of the imagination, a reliance on a god-awful core idea of a fight to the death against supernatural monsters in ancient China and a narrative where each moment is more preposterous than the last, each plot point flimsier than the one that came before. If ever a film was made with more money than sense, this is it.

As with the casting, this didn't happen because "The Great Wall" stinted on writing talent. The respected team of Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz has a story credit, and the gifted Tony Gilroy, who wrote four of the Jason Bourne scripts, shares screenplay credit with Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro.

The originating intelligence here is likely Max Brooks, who has the first story-credit position and whose background as the creator of "World War Z" jibes with the fact that "The Great Wall" is basically a swarming zombie story set in northern China around AD 1100, with mythological creatures called the Tao Tei standing in for the legions of the undead.

Before we meet these glum creatures we are introduced to a group of Europeans fleeing roving bandits in China's vast outback. Top dog is the hardened mercenary William Garin (Damon) and his battle-scarred Spanish buddy Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal). They are in country hoping to pilfer gunpowder, a.k.a. "the weapon of our dreams," and sell it to the highest bidder back home in Europe where the destructive substance is as yet unknown.

Gigantic as the Great Wall of China most definitely is, big enough to be seen from outer space, its existence somehow comes as a shock to these two when they literally stumble on it while on the run. And more shocks are very much in store.

Inside the structure is the Nameless Order, an army so huge it is broken up into nifty color-coded regiments. The archers wear red, the cavalrymen don purple, the combat soldiers make do with black, and then there are the all female Cranes, dressed in blue as they do elaborate swan dives into battle. Really.

All this is a reminder that director Zhang, despite his start with thoughtful films such as "Red Sorghum" and "Raise the Red Lantern," has devolved into a director known (witness his work on the opening and closing Beijing Olympic ceremonies) for spectacle more than anything else.

Add to that the fact that "The Great Wall's" dialogue, in a bow to the realities of the international marketplace, is mostly in English and you get negligible emotional connection here, a situation that hampers Damon and Willem Dafoe, who plays a random European skulking around the fortress, most of all.

In charge of the Nameless Order is a very capable group of Chinese. Aside from Lau as Strategist Wang, there is Gen. Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and the redoubtable Commander Lin (the quietly effective Jing Tian), the head of the photogenic but deadly Crane Corps.

Garin’s skill with a crossbow comes in handy, but because this is a Chinese film he is presented as simply one of many heroes and someone who has a lot to learn (mostly from Commander Lin) about the importance of fighting for a cause not yourself.

The first thing Garin learns, however, is why all those soldiers are stationed on the wall in the first place. Preposterous as it sounds, they're there to combat the velociraptor-type Tao Tei, a heaven-sent scourge who appear like clockwork every 60 years to do their worst.

All teeth and nasty attitude, the Tao Tei are, despite the best efforts of hoards of visual-effects technicians, more tedious than anything else, and presenting them in clumsy 3-D simply makes things worse.

Despite all the work that went into it (13,140 costume pieces! More than 20,000 props including over 1,000 pieces of pottery for one banquet alone!) "The Great Wall" is not worth anyone's time.

Commander Lin isn't referring to the film when she says at one point, "It would be better if you had never seen it," but it sure feels like she is.

Jing Tian, left, Matt Damon, Andy Lau and Cheney Chen in the movie "The Great Wall." (Jasin Boland / Universal Pictures)

Review: Matt Damon Battles Clusters of Monsters in ‘The Great Wall’

Snarling digital monsters, a glowering Matt Damon and battalions of unfaltering Chinese warriors mix it up in “The Great Wall,” a painless, overstuffed spectacle that works overtime as a testament to China’s might. Set once upon a time, the movie spins a legend that never was: Every 60 years, slavering creatures emerge from beyond to sharpen their teeth on human bones and stuff their bellies on meat. The whole thing plays out as if it had been thought up by someone who, while watching “Game of Thrones” and smoking a bowl, started riffing on walls, China and production money.

The threadbare story turns on a swaggering mercenary, William (Mr. Damon), who’s trying to find what he calls “black powder,” a.k.a. gunpowder. He and a sidekick, Tovar (Pedro Pascal, from “Game of Thrones”), end up at the Great Wall, where after some macho posturing and chest thumping, they join forces with the wall’s guardians, including an English-speaking military genius, Lin Mae (Jing Tian); an adviser, Wang (Andy Lau); and an assortment of supporting glowerers (Hanyu Zhang, Eddie Peng Yu-Yen and Ling Gengxin). Willem Dafoe, the whites of his eyes shining, is there, too, slinking around as Ballard, a Western prisoner who long ago also sought the black powder.

That’s about it, plus striking locations (the Rainbow Mountains), digital wizardry and battles between hordes of critters (called Tao Tei) and legions of soldiers. These are distinguished by skill and hue, like the blue-clad Crane Corp, who bungee-jump off the wall with spears. Outside of the bromantic quipping between William and Tovar, the dialogue is aggressively simple (no frills, no poetry) and skews along the lines of “Release the Kraken” or, in this case, bring out the flaming balls of death and so forth. This seems to suit the director, Zhang Yimou (“Hero”), who lavishes much of his attention on the wall, which amusingly suggests a giant Swiss Army knife, scissors included.

Mr. Damon, wearing hair extensions and employing an on-and-off Irish accent, looks uncharacteristically ill at ease during much of this. He may be the headliner, but he’s also just one of this movie’s many, many whirring parts. “The Great Wall” flirts with romance and bleats out a little propagandistic blather about the benefits of bilateral action, but the focus throughout remains on multitudes of shifting, surging bodies — human and beast, digital and not — that, as they ebb and flow, resemble a Chinese military pageant and a lavish Busby Berkeley number. At times the effect brings to mind the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s ideas about Berkeley-like revues or, as he wrote in 1927, “indissoluble girl clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics.”

In such formations, bodies are abstracted into larger geometric shapes and people transform into a collective mass ornament. This transformation obviously takes on sinister meaning when such formations are adapted for, say, Nazi propaganda, as demonstrated in the film “ Triumph of the Will.”

In “The Great Wall,” though, the bodies are divided into two distinct, oppositional configurations: the raw and the cooked. On the one side are the monsters that — despite being nicely designed zeros and ones — suggest a wildness that cannot be denied. On the other are the meticulously choreographed warriors, who never seem less human than when joined together.

Review: Matt Damon Fights Mystical Beasts in the Not-Terrible Great Wall

If you’ve ever longed to watch Matt Damon, dressed in vaguely medieval fantasy warrior gear, sling arrows at ravenous green beasties with eyeballs set in their shoulder bones, then The Great Wall is the movie for you. The Great Wall isn't terrible—you might call it The Not-Bad Wall. But as a showcase for Damon’s considerable talents, and as a canvas for the gifted Chinese director Zhang Yimou, this ostentatious mythical epic isn’t quite the movie it should be. It sure is handsome-looking, throwing off a majestic gleam. But that’s not the same as possessing actual majesty. There’s barely a minute when The Great Wall doesn’t veer into the trying-too-hard zone, and to watch all that striving is simply exhausting.

Damon stars as William, a European mercenary doing something-or-other in or near China. Obviously, he’s been there a long time, from the looks of his rangy, Middle Earth-style facial hair. (Damon is almost recognizable at this point: It’s hard to believe there’s a star under all that fur.) One night, the camp he’s set up with his sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal) and a few other blokes is attacked by a vicious, unseen beastie, which William kills. As the creature runs off to die, it leaves behind its massive chopped-off claw, which William tucks in his bag, “so someone can tell me what I just killed.”

Before long, William and Tovar are captured by Chinese soldiers and brought back to Great Wall HQ for questioning. There, Strategist Wang (played by the wonderful Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, radiating a distinctive quality you could call impish dignity) explains that the gnarly hand they’ve been toting around belongs to one of the Tao Tei, crazy-violent beasts who, if left unchecked, will destroy all of China—and as it turns out, they’re headed, by the millions, for the wall just at that moment. Tovar and William are taken prisoner, but manage to break free just in time to kill a few of the fearsome reptilian thingies, who pour forth in a thick, steady stream. William also makes moo-moo eyes at the bold, comely Commander Lin (Tian Jing, soon to be seen in Kong: Skull Island). He doesn't stand a chance with her, though his odds increase slightly once he’s sheared off that facial forest.

The action scenes in The Great Wall—most of them involving brave soldiers, and William, going against those Tao Tei hordes in one way or another—are ambitious and massive. Technically, I guess you’d call them well handled, but there’s little magic in them, save for a sequence involving a troupe of women warriors known as the Crane Corps, lithe, caped Busby Berkeley-style acrobats sporting molded blue falcon-head helmets. Secured by cables, they swoop down from a formation of prongs atop the wall and stab at the green gilled reptilian thingies until they’re dead, dead, dead. It’s dangerous work, and some of the Crane Corps end up eaten, eaten, eaten. But this is one place where director Zhang gets to show off his gift for mingling color, pageantry and action.

This is Zhang’s first feature since the 2014 Coming Home, an unapologetic and moving melodrama, set in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, that went virtually unseen by American audiences. (He’s much more famous Stateside for movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.) The Great Wall is a carefully calibrated machine, a Chinese-U.S. coproduction: The idea was to match a renowned Chinese director with a Hollywood star and make a fantasy spectacle that would wow the world—or at least make a lot of money on multiple continents. There have been a few bumps on that hopeful road to riches. The release of the film’s trailer, last summer, prompted charges of whitewashing: Before anyone really knew what the movie was about, casual observers figured this was another white-man-saves-the-world retread.The Great Wall pretty much is a white man saves the world retread, though it’s not as if the role had been conceived for an Asian actor only to be thrown to a white one. And as white male stars go, Damon, an eminently likable presence, isn’t a bad one. But the controversy that sprang up around the picture is illustrative. In a world where hot new information about upcoming Hollywood projects flows into our craniums daily, we think we know exactly what movies are going to be months, sometimes years, before we even get to see them. It takes almost nothing to get the outrage machine going. So many movies seem like old news long before we even get to experience them. The big problem with The Great Wall isn’t that it stars a white guy. It’s simply that a production this ambitious—featuring a charismatic star and a host of appealing and in some cases dazzling Chinese actors—should just be better, something more than a Lord of the Rings wanna-be. If we had any outrage left, maybe we'd feel angry about that. As it is, the picture is worth little more than a shrug.

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