First, there was that inexplicable half-hour climax in “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which exported the entire cast to Beijing. Now, Matt Damon’s battling mystical forces in medieval China. Hollywood and China’s terminally awkward shotgun wedding continues with “The Great Wall,” a clunky, effects-riddled blockbuster in which a humorless Damon joins forces with major Chinese director Zhang Yimou for a project that suits neither of their talents. There’s little need for good performances or filmmaking when every scene has been calculated to serve the bottom line.
Assailed in the West for presenting a white savior at the center of an Asian cast, the movie’s racial violations aren’t as egregious as some early critics claimed. Instead, the bland story finds Damon and two other white actors surrounded by a largely Asian cast in a Chinese-approved adventure (where it’s already generating strong, though not blockbuster, box office). A bad movie by any culture’s standards, “The Great Wall” mostly goes to show that if the future of the business lies with Hollywood -China alliances, it doesn’t bode well for either side.
“This is one of the legends” of China’s Great Wall, proclaims an opening title card. We peer on the expansive architectural achievement from space, hurtling toward it, and arrive in a barren desert. That’s where traders William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are wandering through caves after losing most of the rest of their men to ruthless bandits. They’re on a quest for “black powder” (an early version of gunpowder) and they’ve hit, well, a wall.
One night, they’re attacked by a mysterious creature in the shadows. William slashes away and finds a green claw lying at his feet. Later, they’re captured by an army of Chinese soldiers (the Nameless Sect) assembled along the Great Wall, and questioned by the authorities. How did they manage to kill a monster on the verge of attacking their kingdom?
Did I mention there are monsters? Huge, green, CGI lizard-aliens that lope across the landscape bearing fangs and claws? They’re called the Taoties, they look ridiculous, and the backstory doesn’t help their case: They crashed into Earth via a meteor ages ago, and an ancient emperor accidentally let them loose while mining for goods. They emerge from the ground every 60 years to remind the Chinese about the pratfalls of greed, and they arrived in the U.S. in early 2017 for similar reasons.
In their efforts to fend off the advancing Taoties, the Nameless Sect converts their prisoners into partners. “I didn’t sign up for this,” Tovar grumbles. “Which part?” William asks. “All of it,” Tovar responds, “but mostly the monsters.” Audiences will relate.
Outside that feeble moment of levity, the script (written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy) plods through a series of set pieces. “The Great Wall” is on sturdier ground with its Chinese characters, and despite the overwhelming absurdity that end of the cast turns in serviceable performances. The Nameless Order does the bidding of a stern General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and his devout strategist Wang (Zhang regular Andy Lau), while their battle victories owe much to the astounding physical achievements of Commander Lin (Jing Tian). Taken by William’s earlier success with the Taoties, she bonds with him over a mutual interest in the battlefield. Any potential for a cross-cultural romance, however, is smothered by clunky exposition.
The movie does present some engaging distractions in the Chinese troops’ inventive ways of combating the beasts, including the Crane Corp — a set of blue-clad warriors who bungee jump off the wall, spears in hand — and giant hot-air balloons. However, much of the action unfolding along the Wall recalls any number of similar showdowns in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Game of Thrones.” There’s a modicum of suspense in a prolonged segment that finds William attempting to capture an alien so the Chinese can study its weaknesses, but it plays out in such a straightforward fashion that it’s as if everyone lost interest in the challenge halfway through.
The strangest thing about “The Great Wall” is how much talent was squandered on it. Damon would have vetoed this concept on “Project Greenlight.” What did Willem Dafoe think he was getting himself into when he took on the role of the bumbling thief who wanders the Chinese fortress, eager to get his hands on black powder? And while Yimou usually has tight control of his stories, this one eludes his grasp. Unlike his ambitious “House of Flying Daggers,” which elegantly blended the Wuxia genre with a love story, “The Great Wall” just sags into CGI. The occasional slo-mo shot of a blade hurled at its target or a well-timed grenade toss are redeeming only because they distract from the overwhelming mediocrity. At times, “The Great Wall” doesn’t even feel like a movie so much as a series of heavily processed effects and rushed conversations … which set the stage for more effects.
We’re familiar with films that are unapologetic commodities, but at least the last “Transformers” movie found more opportunities for self-awareness. It might be possible to appreciate the premise of “The Great Wall” — giant creatures coming out of the earth to remind us of greed’s destructive power — as a handy allegory for the rise of Trump, but ultimately “The Great Wall” is too stupid to justify any close reading.
However, its stupidity doesn’t belong to cultural ignorance, which enshrouded its reputation in the months leading up to its release. While Americans assailed the movie for foregrounding its white hero, the Chinese see it more as an example of inclusiveness. Indeed, the story doesn’t transform an Asian hero into a white one; it’s more of a Connecticut Yankee in ancient Chinese court. Unlike “The Last Samurai,” Damon’s not treated as an individual who’s superior to everyone around him. He’s just pretty good on the battlefield.
So let’s assume for a minute that the uproar over whitewashing in “The Great Wall” is less an example of institutional racism than ideological overreach in a culture that’s sensitive to its progressive ideals. That only means that Matt Damon is the least of its problems. “The Great Wall” is an equal-opportunity offender, the product of a questionable commercial alliance that could benefit from facing down a green alien greed lesson of its own.
“The Great Wall” opens nationwide on February 17.