All you really need to know about Zhang Yimou‘s “The Great Wall” is that there’s a moment where Pedro Pascal waves a red cloth at a charging reptilian monster like a bullfighter, while Matt Damon lies in wait to kill it behind the rustling fabric. That’s the whole movie in a nutshell: a beautiful spectacle that elicits giggles for how silly it is, and Damon gets to save the day, though he’s surrounded by thousands of trained Chinese warriors.
Set in a version of historical China where legends are real, “The Great Wall” offers a fantastical version of why the titular structure was built. Here, snarling hordes of monsters are to blame. Led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Commander Lin (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), the Chinese army attempts to fight off the creatures when they attack every 60 years. They capture mercenaries William (Damon, sporting an odd accent that could best be described as watered-down Irish) and Tovar (Pascal, offering much of the film’s intentional comedy), who are in the country to get gunpowder, then unknown in Europe. They are soon released when the Chinese leaders discover that they may be helpful in their ongoing battle against the monsters. They meet a fellow European in Ballard (Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe at his most dull) and begin to plot their departure as the creatures continue to attack the wall.
Beyond the bullfighting maneuver, the film features plenty of inventive warfare and weaponry. Women spear fighters dive from platforms like they’re in a deadly version of Cirque du Soleil, and the siege weapons are cool enough to elicit a grin, if not a fist pump. Hot air balloons show up in the final act, and they’re ill-advised but gorgeous and a fun addition to the world created by Yimou and screenwriters Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Don’t think of Gilroy as the man who wrote “Michael Clayton” and the Bourne movies here; remember that he wrote “The Devil’s Advocate” and was credited on “Armageddon.”
With an effectively rousing score from “Game of Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi, “The Great Wall” grasps at being a battle-heavy epic where the stakes are high and the drums are always pounding. Here, the instruments are actually within the action itself in one of the film’s cooler elements as the percussion serves as a message to the troops during battle. But Zhang’s film never reaches the heights of the best fantasy action movies like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with its solid war scenes surrounded by weak connective tissue; it even makes “300” look like a masterpiece. The dialogue somehow manages to always say too much or too little, and the language gap between William and Tovar and the Chinese forces means that we’re constantly hearing something said and then seeing another character repeat it in translation. Other than the enjoyably silly banter between Damon and Pascal, there are few moments that endear you to anyone on screen. The movie’s tone veers from bombastic to goofy with speed but little grace.
As in his previous work, Zhang is a master of color, with vibrant reds, blues and yellows making a visual feast while we’re starved on the script side. The film was screened for press in 3D, and it’s one of the few movies that truly benefits from the upgrade. The director’s trademark arrow work previously seen in “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” is particularly effective in 3D, but the smooth silks and flowing fabrics of the costumes are especially vivid, setting it apart from most other films that use the technology with more concern for throwing objects at your face, rather than paying attention to texture. It made me nostalgic for “Hero,” which would have likely been even more impressive through 3D, but it would also have a story that is just as engaging as its visuals.
“The Great Wall” is yet another narrative driven by the “white savior” trope, with Damon’s William wowing his Chinese captors with his bow skills and impressing them even more by slaying a beast by himself. Though he is flanked by literally thousands of Chinese fighters, as well as generals and strategists, he is the one who is positioned to defeat their enemy, though they’ve been surviving against the siege for centuries and have more sophisticated weapons. William has a magnet. Serial “white savior” offender Edward Zwick was originally slated to direct before production stalled, and this would’ve been right in his wheelhouse, along with”The Last Samurai,” “Glory” and “Blood Diamond.” The film ultimately – mild spoiler alert – rights this wrong in its final scenes, but it isn’t enough to undo the preceding 90 minutes. [C-]