THE GREAT WALL is a big, blustery action-adventure flick in the classic mold, but with one exception. There’s no damsel in distress here. Instead, the winsome lady of the piece is a warrior with nerves of steel and no fear of heights. Kudos there. Not everywhere, but definitely there.
Set somewhere in the 11th century, it finds mercenary soldiers William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) in China, where they plan to acquire China’s legendary and incendiary black powder, bring it back to Europe, and make their fortunes. Alas, the odds are against them, and so are the locals, who have whittled their expeditionary force down to just the two of them. With all hope lost, fate intervenes, sending them at just the right time, and with just the right deterrent, a Tao Tei. Not that either of them knows what it was that attacked them in a heavy fog, leaving behind the claw William sliced off one of them. Fortunately, the hostile locals chase them right to the people who can best tell them: The Nameless Order, which has defended the eponymous Great Wall from those creatures for a millennia or so. Yet, in all that time, they’ve overlooked the one thing that could aid them with an enemy that evolves in cunning and tactics. And, of course, it’s something that William has been schlepping across the known world.
Yeah, it’s a throwback to that other classic Hollywood trope: the white guy who steps in to save the day. Single-handed. Starting with William breaking free of his restraints shortly after being captured, and personally taking down two of the Tao Teis. Maybe more. Things happen with quick chaos in the battle sequences. To be fair, though, a great effort has been expended to highlight the teamwork involved as William joins forces with Commander Lin (Tian Jing), the ci-mentioned winsome lady of the piece, and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), the tactician charged with out-thinking the creatures. It’s also made clear that this is more than just China’s fight, what with the ravening horde of creatures threatening all of humankind if The Nameless Order can’t stop them when they attack again like clockwork every 60 years.
Issues of political correctness aside, it’s an engaging popcorn flick, with William and Pedro bantering wittily as frenemies who soon fall on opposite sides of a moral quandary. William, played by Damon’s fresh-faced wholesomeness, is seduced by virtue, while Tovar, in the thrall of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), an Englishmen held captive for 25 years on the Wall, decides for moral turpitude. The action is as sumptuous as the Emperor’s palace that we visit late in the film, with impressive arsenals of lethal weapons, some involving bungee jumping, sophisticated machinery, and creatures that are equally daunting individually with their rows of needle-like teeth in snapping jaws, or in the roiling masses of them thundering across the plain and up the Wall itself.
The story follows a rigid formula, but moves along quickly, if not succinctly. A shorter film would have been sharper, and less dialogue (all too wooden when not in a bantering vein) and more slick moments such as William’s facility as an archer, at which he is as adept as with a quick quip. It eschews a soppy romance in favor of meeting of equals, which is refreshing, even if the cliché characters of Wang and the assorted soldiers are not.
THE GREAT WALL is not afraid to indulge in a highly refined aesthetic sense amid the mayhem. Striking visuals, including a pivotal, death-defying battle in a tower lined with stained glass, elevate this beyond quotidienne popcorn flick. If only its politics were as laudable.