If you don’t love The Great Wall, we don’t have much to talk about. Yes, it’s terrible, but it’s lavishly, generously terrible, and even at its worst it isn’t painful — unlike, say, the list of finalists for this year’s Razzie awards. (Try sitting through Zoolander 2 and tell me how bad The Great Wall is.) It’s fun to watch Matt Damon try not to look or sound like Matt Damon, dropping his voice half an octave, sucking in his gut, affecting a manly stoicism. For a while I wondered if he made this movie because he had gambling debts and the Triad was holding his family hostage, but then it hit me that he made it because he could. As an A-list international movie star, he can be a secret agent, an astronaut on Mars, or a fearless warrior in medieval China. You and I can’t be any of those things.
It’s rarely a good idea for white stars to make movies in China in which they save the world with their fighting skills while hordes of Chinese (whose collective salaries don’t equal the star’s) fall by the wayside. But there’s something modest about Damon’s demeanor that lets him get by. He plays a mercenary named William Garin, who’s either English or Irish — I think Irish. In the first sequence, William kills a giant creature we can’t quite see (it’s not clear if this is by design or ineptitude) and, along with his comic-relief Spaniard pal, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), carries its severed limb to a nearby fortress behind the Great Wall.
The beast turns out to be something called a Tao Tei and it’s like a combination reptile and rat with a helmet-head out of Alien. (“What God made those things?” “None that we know.”) The Tao Tei live in Jade Mountain and — I’m reading from my press notes —“rise every 60 years to feed upon humanity and punish mankind’s greed.” I don’t remember how they know it’s because of mankind’s greed. Maybe they just inferred it from feeding upon humanity. The denizens of the fortress are called the Nameless Order and train for 60 years in anticipation of the next Tao Tei uprising. No one says, “Winter is coming,” but that’s the gist.
The Nameless don’t believe one man alone could kill a Tao Tei, so Garin recounts the story: “A swing of the sword,” he says. “The hand fell away clean. The beast fell back into the chasm.” Much of the dialogue sounds like it’s badly translated from Mandarin, but the writers are all American. I guess they watched a lot of wuxia movies and internalized the bad subtitles. (Amazingly enough, the story is credited to Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz.)
In the event you don’t know, wuxia books and movies features martial-arts heroes in ancient China, and The Great Wall’s director, Zhang Yimou, made a couple of the greatest ever: Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). His pictures usually have a much cleaner palette, though — I don’t think he has ever had to contend with this much CG. The action isn’t edited so you can see what’s going on, and my 3-D glasses didn’t sharpen the picture. Some of the vistas look computer-generated, too. Perhaps the film was shot in Burbank, like the moon landing.
The setup for the first battle is certainly impressive. Atop the wall, the Nameless Order surveys the charging beasts while men beat man-size drums and, down below, soldiers take big, heavy iron balls and douse them in oil and light them and slingshot them onto the Tao Tei — and we follow the balls all the way down as they go boom. Meanwhile, identically blue-clad female warriors get strapped into harnesses and swing down to lance the creatures — though unfortunately what comes back up is only chewed-up harnesses. A friend I was with said, “Sixty years? They had 60 years and that’s all they could come up with? Send some cheerleaders down on ropes and watch ’em get eaten?”
A young female leader named Lin (Tian Jing, who has a heart-shaped face and looks about 16) forms a bond with William, but the alliance, at first, is uneasy. She fights for her people, she says, while he only looks out for himself. Also, he doesn’t have trust in other people. She says, “A man must learn to trust before he can be trusted.” This obviously hits home, because a short time later he tells Tovar and a second comic-relief character, played by Willem Dafoe, that he’s going to stay and help the Nameless. Apart from debating the social contract with the beauteous Lin, he finds time to buttress the confidence of an inept young soldier. When the kid is wounded, he says, “Brave lad.”
Annoyingly, The Great Wall is another of those movies where you can only stop the monster by killing the queen, who sends out some sort of telekinetic life force. This strikes me as — evolutionarily speaking — very maladaptive. What happens if the queen is just ambling along and trips and breaks her neck? The whole species goes extinct?
Oh, let’s not quibble: The absurdity is what makes it such a hoot-and-a-half. In the climactic shot, two characters swing over hundreds of monsters and blow things up and it looks incredibly fake — but I’d have been disappointed, in a way, if it hadn’t. If it looked like the Death Star exploding, it wouldn’t have fit with the rest of the movie. It had to look cheesy.
There is, as I’ve said, a certain mightiness to this enterprise that transcends what Shakespeare would call the general woe. I can’t predict if anyone will see it (it will probably make most of its money in Asia), but I’m looking forward to The Great Wall II. Maybe Matt could convince Ben to play the Tao Tei queen’s brother who’s out for vengeance.