'Great Wall': Matt Damon saves China, but not the film

In the Chinese fantasy blockbuster The Great Wall, ancient warriors stand against an advancing  horde of phantasmagoric creatures.

One looks just like Matt Damon with hair extensions and a fake beard.

Hold on, that is Damon, disguised with a ponytail and also a weird Irish accent, apparently meant to reflect his character’s European origins. Damon plays William, a mercenary who travels to China with Spanish buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal) seeking gunpowder.

Why?

Because, as we learn later, this coveted black powder will provide access to “every counting room and brothel,” perhaps pointing to a sequel that will occur in Vegas.

Just about anything is possible in the screwy mythology of this megabudget Chinese American hybrid – the most expensive movie ever made in China (where it has been a big hit), augmented by a multinational cast and crew.

Top of the marquee is Damon, miscast as mythic badass William, caught in the middle of a battle between a large Chinese army and an invasion of critters that attack the Great Wall every 60 years, the residue of some of supernatural curse.

William is initially in it for selfish reasons, but falls hard for a beautiful army commander (Jing Tian), who urges him to fight for a larger purpose and embrace Chinese values of trust and honor. This causes friction with his mercenary pal Tovar, who wants to steal as much gunpowder as he can and sell it to the highest bidder. 

It’s not much of a plot, barely enough to connect the movie’s big action sequences – William kills monsters with amazing archery skills and beheads others with his Frisbee shield. An air force of hot-air balloons is launched, primitive grenades are dropped, and warrior women suspended by rope leap from the Great Wall to stab at the creatures, which are gigantic doglike beings that feed and swarm and gnash like dry-land piranhas.

“What god made these things?” Tovar asks.

“None that we know,” says William.

Actually, it was Industrial Light & Magic -- not the company's best work. And the costumes come from WETA in New Zealand, perhaps one reason the movie has a Lord of the Rings ring to it (it’s very Helm’s Deep), particularly in the way it attempts to make fantasy seem like history.

All of this money and talent (it’s directed by Zhang Yimou), though, has yielded something that feels less like a modern-effects spectacular (it's in 3-D) than a Ray Harryhausen movie from 60 years ago and, as a consequence, will be best enjoyed on Saturday morning, served with Froot Loops.

More interesting is what The Great Wall portends for the future – joint Chinese American productions, with talent flowing in all directions. Instead of importing Jackie Chan, we’re now outsourcing Matt Damon. Will the movies get better? Not based on the evidence submitted here.


The Great Wall

Directed by Zhang Yimou. With Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Hanyu Zhang, Pedro Pascal, Zheng Kai, Lu Han, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian, Matt Damon, Junkai Wang. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 44 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy action violence).