The Great Wall (PG-13)
Primary colors and iffy CGI star in The Great Wall, a movie that appears to have designed its battle scenes first and then filled in some story around them.
William (Matt Damon doing an Irish, maybe, accent? Or something accenty?) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, who was beloved as Game of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell and should be able to get a better gig) are the final two goofuses out of a larger group of European/Western goofuses goofusing around China in ye olden times in search of “black powder.” The semi-finalists in this endeavor are mysteriously killed by something that William cuts the hand off of, a hand that suggests a giant reptile.
When the army of the Nameless Order picks the pair up, it is this hand that keeps the army from immediately killing them. The hand belongs to a Tao Tei, one of a group of raptor-like things that appear every 60 years. As it happens, the Nameless Order, which guards the Great Wall that keeps the Tao Tei out of the kingdom, is preparing for one of their 60-year skirmishes. A massive army is waiting for these lizard things, but even its leader, General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), doesn’t seem confident his archers, catapult-bombs and lady-spear-fighters (the Crane fighters, who bungee into the hordes of raptors to stab at them) will be enough to hold the Tao Tei.
Though Commander Lin (Jing Tian), leader of the Cranes, seems happy to kill William and Tovar right away so they can concentrate on the lizards, strategist Wang (Andy Lau), who is surprised to hear that Tao Tei are so close to the wall, suggests they keep the duo around. A magnet William was carrying in his pocket might hold the key to a Tao Tei weakness. Later, during a Tao Tei attack, the duo prove themselves as fighters and William, in particular, wants to help the Nameless Order. Tovar would prefer to listen to Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another westerner at the Wall, and steal the black power while everybody’s distracted.
The Cranes wear armor and capes of an eye-catching blue and look pretty cool as they dive off the wall to fight, spears in hand. Other troops are red or gold and also look pretty awesome as they work in unison to hold back the Tao Tei. The various weaponry the Nameless Order employs on the Tao Tei is also spiffy, even if some of the explosions look a bit iffy and the lizard-things they unleash heck on are not the greatest, graphically speaking.
And, that’s about it, when it comes to things this movie has to offer. Jing Tian’s Lin is a pretty badass warrior but off the battlefield I got the sense the movie wasn’t sure what to do with her or whether to make her and William love interests. Tovar and William’s relationship feels very paint-by-numbers buddy, to the degree that a lot of their “joking” with each other feels like it belongs in some other movie, in some other time. Damon’s overall performance is also pretty strange — whatever accent he’s trying to do is clearly taking, like, 90 percent of his concentration.
Scheduling dictated that I had to see this movie in 3-D, and though the battle set pieces look pretty cool, I didn’t get anything extra by having some of it come just a little closer to me. And, while zillions of color-coded warriors in position on a wall while drums are played looks pretty neat, the second any of them “interacted” with any of the Tao Tei any tension the scene had built was gone. Lizard stickers physically adhered to frames of film would have felt as real as the Tao Tei did.
The Great Wall has all the trappings of a fun, visually exciting action movie; it just feels like somebody forgot to write a story to go along with it. C-
Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. Directed by Yimou Zhang with a screenplay by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy, The Great Wall is an hour and 43 minutes long and distributed by Universal Pictures, Le Vision Pictures and China Film Group Corporation.