Raleigh, N.C. — It’s impossible to watch TV right now and not see an ad for The Great Wall. It’s also impossible to tell from the ads exactly what the movie is about. It’s an advertising trick we in the media like to call “polishing a turd.”
Well, I’ve seen The Great Wall and I can tell you what it’s about. I can also tell you that I’ve seen a lot of bad movies, and as much as I was bracing myself for this to be the next one, I didn’t think it was so bad. I mean, it has its share of problems and I’m glad I didn’t pay to see it, but I wouldn’t say I suffered through The Great Wall.
Matt Damon plays a thief named William, who is in China with his buddy Tovar (Narco’s Pedro Pascal) to steal black powder, take it back to the West, sell it and make a fortune. Tovar is from Spain. Where William is from is anyone’s guess because his accent sounds like the result of someone telling Damon to “sound white and foreign.” It starts out British and then morphs into something close to Nick Offerman’s regular speaking voice.
While William and Tovar are in the mountains, they are attacked. The rest of their party is killed, but William manages to kill their unseen assailant, who leaves behind a scaly green arm. They take the arm to the massive army stationed at the Great Wall of China, hoping to trade it for black powder. Instead, the pair are told that they are needed for the fight.
The arm came from a monster called the Tao Tei. Every 60 years, they come to China to teach people to be nice by eating them. Seriously, that is the backstory. An old emperor was too greedy, so the gods sent the Tao Tei to China to eat people until the people acknowledge that greed is a bad thing.
So the Tao Tei attack. Willem Dafoe shows up to turn Tovar into a villain. William decides he needs to help these people because he has a magnet in his bag and magnets make the monsters sleepy, and while they’re sleepy, you can blow the monsters up by attaching M80s and bottle rockets to their tails. Really, The Great Wall is an advertisement for fireworks.
The Great Wall looks amazing…sorta.
The movie contains these beautiful landscape shots. There is a scene where the army is using hot air balloons to catch the Tao Tei. It’s a very striking visual. The attacks by the Tao Tei are intense and chaotic and fun to watch.
The problem is that director Yimou Zhang relies on too many goofy shots like it’s 2007 and 3D is something none of us have ever seen before. Seriously, nothing tells an audience “the filmmaker thinks you’re an idiot” quite like an arrow being shot directly at the screen or a monster attacking three feet from your face.
Also, there’s this weird subtext of Matt Damon being the world’s only honorable white man. His cohorts all try to steal from their Chinese hosts and run away. The Chinese general tells us every white man that has ever come to the Great Wall has done the same. Fortunately, Good Will Hunting shows up to teach them that not all white people are bad. I don’t know. This wasn’t a major point of the movie. It was just referenced enough to make me think “I get it! Matt Damon is the only thing keeping China from constant war with the West!”
Like I said, The Great Wall isn’t a good movie, but it was easy enough to get through. It’s short. There’s enough chaos and visual stimulation to hold you over between the boring discussions of honor and an elaborate funeral which is seemingly thrown together in like 10 minutes. Plus, the movie is short - like maybe less than 100 minutes short.
I can’t imagine what a second Great Wall movie looks like, but there will almost certainly be one, because this thing has already made $200 million in China. But look, Suicide Squad made a bunch of money and that was garbage. So I guess the best I can say is “Good news! The Great Wall is slightly better than Suicide Squad!”
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.