‘The Great Wall’ a ridiculous monster epic made in China

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Matt Damon stars as William Garin in “The Great Wall.” | Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

If they hadn’t gone with the Great Wall of China as a setting for this movie, a good second choice would have been the Land of Oz.

After all, the almost unbelievably ridiculous pseudo-epic “The Great Wall” features a Western hero in a very strange land; hot-air balloons; armies of screeching creatures, and even a winding, brick road (aka the top of the Wall) where all sorts of colorful characters and harrowing adventures await.

A pure fantasy set about a thousand years ago during the Song dynasty, with admittedly gorgeous costumes and sets and some pretty cool visual effects, but scads of unintentionally hilarious dialogue and one of the most ludicrous story lines in recent memory, “The Great Wall” is so fantastically misguided and so wonderfully bad, I could see some coming for the action and staying for the camp laughs.

Mostly, though, it’s a beautiful bomb.

Perhaps my favorite moment comes when an army of soldiers from the Great Wall arrive via shaky hot-air balloons (!) in China’s capital city, which has been overrun by thousands of human-eating, building-destroying, Jurassic-looking, dragon-lizard, paranormal monsters known as Taoties.

Even as the ferocious Taoties are chomping up the city, the Emperor’s guards surround the just-landed hot air balloonist soldiers, and one of the guards demands, “What is your purpose here!”

Uh, what is our purpose? Do you not SEE the dragon-lizard monsters ripping humans apart and toppling the empire, buddy?

Many dim characters say and do many stupid things throughout the relatively quick (mercifully so) 104 minutes of this action-packed nonsense. Directed by the martial-arts genius Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon as the Great White Hope along with a number of popular Chinese actors, “The Great Wall” is the most expensive ($135 million) movie ever shot entirely in China and comes across as a naked grab for an East-West box office alliance.

Indeed, the film has already made more than $200 million in China and other markets overseas — but it’s difficult imagining it achieving similar box office success here, despite Damon’s stellar track record and movie star power. This is one of Damon’s very few underwhelming performances in one of the worst movies he’s ever headlined.

Damon plays William, a mercenary who has fought “for many flags” in his blood-spattered life. (William has a strange accent. He kinda sounds like a Quaker, even though I’m pretty sure they didn’t have Crazy Fighting Quakers in the year 1000-ish.) Along with his trusty sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal), William has come to China in search of black powder, aka gunpowder, which will fetch them untold riches back home. (They started with a band of about 20 hunters, but only William and Tovar have survived.)

A special division of the Imperial Army called the Nameless Order captures William and Tovar just as the division is prepping to do battle with the horde of Taotie monsters that attack every 60 years.

Sidebar: If you’re the Nameless Order but you keep calling yourselves the Nameless Order, isn’t the name of your order the Nameless Order? We’re getting into Monty Python territory here, people.

Anyway. The Great Wall. Man, is it something. Apparently tens of thousands of Nameless Order soldiers and support staff live on the Wall. (We never see any kids and there doesn’t seem to be much downtime, what with years of training to prepare to fight the lizard-monsters and all, but nobody ever talks about getting weekend leave either, so I think they all live in or is it on the Wall.)

The whole setup is like the best cosplay convention ever. Everybody is SO color-coordinated! The archers (all male) wear bright red, while the spear-hurling division (all female) sports electric blues. Other battalions sport subtle tones of purple, or Oakland Raiders black.

I think they’re doing this mostly for their own amusement. It’s not as if enemy forces trying to penetrate the Great Wall are going to pause and say, “NICE OUTFITS.”

Jing Tian as Commander Lin Mae in “The Great Wall.” | Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

Jing Tian as Commander Lin Mae in “The Great Wall.” | Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

The breathtaking Jing Tian, struggling with her English, plays the noble Commander Lin. When it comes time for the Nameless Order to fend off the initial attack from the Taoties, Commander Lin and dozens of other female warriors known as the Crane Corps are outfitted with harness tethering devices. Then they walk out on multi-pronged ledges, and they all leap into the sky and try to hit the lizard-monsters with their spears before they are yanked back into place. It’s all very Cirque du Soleil — except a Taotie will chomp you to pieces if you swoop too low.

Speaking of tricks: Damon’s William is so good with a bow and arrow, he and his partner do trick shots involving tricky caroms and tricky flying axes. It’s all very tricky. Guess they’ve had a lot of time to practice between mercenary gigs.

Although “The Great Wall” features a number of Asian actors and characters (my favorite is Andy Lau’s chief strategist, who is known as “Strategist Wang” just so we don’t forget his job description), this is a Matt Damon Movie, sometimes embarrassingly so, e.g., when William enters the Nameless Order’s great dining hall after helping out in battle, and everyone gives him a prolonged ovation. Geez.

The CGI images of the Great Wall are seamless. The monsters and their somewhat jerky movements? Not so great. Director Yimou is an amazing visual stylist and he delivers a few wonderfully outrageous sequences, but what we’re getting here is basically a pricey monster movie with uninteresting monsters, and human characters so one-dimensional they might just disappear if they turn sideways.


Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Zhang Yimou and written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy action violence). Running time: 104 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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