The Great Wall features sequences of balletic action and a thrilling use of color and texture. It tells of an epic legend surrounding the titular wonder of the world, positioned in China because, according to this story, of monsters that could penetrate the kingdom and wipe the planet of its population. A man from the West, a foreigner, winds up being their only protection against these ravaging monsters. It's the "white savior" narrative writ large, but that's only a problem that can be tied to the legend itself. The film doesn't quite dig deep enough into characters who need more development than screenwriters Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy are willing or able to give them with this patchwork narrative. It rushes through the introduction of its characters, through the set-up of its central premise, and through the build-up to and pay-off of its conflict.
This is a film that juggles so much in the span of its 104-minute running time that the immediate reaction is to wish for an hour more, if only because there is much here with a lot of promise. The primary story follows Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jang), who under the command of General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) is asked to face off against the Tao Tei, a massive horde of green monsters that attack the Great Wall of China every sixty years. The casualties are enormous, and so the wall is populated and governed like a city in a constant militant state, with Shao at its helm. The Emperor is merely a teenager, but he has decreed that any Tao Tei that is captured be brought to him for scientific study. It seems that magnetic rock weakens the Tao Tei's advances through physiology.
The problem is that, in this arrangement of the lesson, Lin's story isn't even her own. The "main" character here is William, the aforementioned man from the West, who has tactical knowledge of which the others have no concept. Matt Damon plays William in a curious, ineffective performance that shifts between uncertain accents at random and can't decide whether the character is a formidable warrior or an aloof newcomer. His chemistry with Tovar (Pedro Pascal) is a neat idea in theory, as it introduces a buddy comedy into the mix, but a subplot in which Tovar joins forces with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a willing prisoner, to undermine Lin's trust in William comes out of left field, as if the entire build-up within the subplot was left on the cutting-room floor. The light romantic tension between William and Lin, meanwhile, is a distraction.
It is a distraction, no less, from the element of the film that works like gangbusters, and that would be the visual acumen with which director Zhang Yimou, a renowned master in his native China (and beyond) who is no stranger to spectacle but is pairing it with 3-D for the first time, approaches the setpieces. There are, of course, three. The first is effective at establishing the method, both of the warriors and of the creatures (who are intriguing visually and hold a curious intelligence that is unexpected). The second involves the first attempt to defeat the monsters after William has joined the hunt, and the third is the climax, in which the characters attempt to defeat the Tao Tei by increasing their high ground. All of them are stunningly entertaining, but they sadly only hint at a greatness that far outreaches the film's grasp. The Great Wall wants to be an epic and impactful story out of legend, but it is too inconsequential for such an honor.
Matt Damon (William), Jing Tian (Lin), Pedro Pascal (Tovar), Willem Dafoe (Ballard), Andy Lau (Wang), Hanyu Zhang (Shao), Lu Han (Peng Yong).
Directed by Zhang Yimou and written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy.
Rated PG-13 (fantasy action violence).
Released on February 17, 2017.