Once upon a time, a meteor crashed into the mountains of China, unleashing a horde of monsters who will get the munchies and descend upon the people of China every sixty years. And the only thing standing between China and the monsters is Matt Damon and his very square jaw.
Or so the movie poster for The Great Wall would have one believe. I mean, look at it. It’s Damon’s big head versus, well, everything.
Despite the poster, The Great Wall isn’t white washing per say. Damon is the superfluous Westerner, thrown in to milk extra millions from Hollywood studio execs who think a movie won’t do well without an American A-lister. But the bigger problem is that Damon is horribly miscast. As a gee-whiz, all-American nerd, he’s perfect in The Martian. He also turns in serviceable performance in the Bourne movies, where his brand of bland, stoic white boy matches the needs of the character.
As a jaded mercenary in a fantasy milieu of swords and tech-sorcery, he’s out of his element. “Stoic” is a difficult character to develop, because the type is by definition rather limited. With good writing (dialogue), directing, and an actor with native charm (i.e., wit), stoics can transcend their humorless dictates. Damon, hobbled by stilted dialogue and his own limitations, is not the actor for the role. A better choice might have been his co-star, Game of Throne‘s Pedro Pascal, who has the innate snakey charm to pull off rogue with a heart of gold.
William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are mercenaries, aka “traders,” schlepping through arid China in search of the legendary black powder. When their company is attacked by a mysterious green monster, all are killed except William and Tovar. William keeps the monster’s arm as a trophy, hoping to find out what it is. The answer arrives when the two encounter the Great Wall and several thousand elite Chinese soldiers, including Commander Lin (Tian Jing). Commander Lin and the rest all wear gorgeous armor that is a cosplayer’s dream. Where can I get that armor, because…awesome.
The rest is a simplistic, CGI-heavy “monsters vs. humans” plot, sparing no expense on the scenery–this is a gorgeous movie–but doing little else than checking off the usual epic tropes. Embittered soldier who finally finds his heart and a reason to fight? Check. Plucky and snarky sidekick? Check. Bromance? Check. (Though it’s a very weak one) Loveable character whose sole purpose is to die and generate the “feels”? Check. (Although character development is sparse so it’s hard to care. )
The battles and cinematography are wonderful, but there isn’t enough story or character development to take the film to the level of Lord of the Rings. This ain’t the battle for Helm’s Deep.
The Great Wall is ultimately nothing more than a coffee table-type movie. Big and full of brilliant images, but rather empty. On the other hand, a case can be made for seeing this on the big screen where the effects can be seen in full glory. But I’d advise waiting till it gets demoted to the second-run cheap matinees.