The Great Wall - Official Trailer #2 - In Theaters This February (screengrab)

The Great Wall looks like it could be a really amazing video game. Alas, it’s a movie, and kind of a brick. A lavishly man-bunned Matt Damon stars as White Savior—sorry, William—a freelance medieval mercenary (he fights for gold, not honor; gunpowder, not glory) who joins forces with China’s fighting elite to battle the Tao Tie, a rapacious horde of homicidal reptiles hellbent on breaching the ancient city of Bianliang.

In the beginning, participation is hardly voluntary; William and his fellow traveler Tovar (Narcos’ Pedro Pascal) stumble upon the fortress’s warrior elite—the so-called Nameless Order—in search of the mysterious, combustive “black powder,” and arrive bearing an accidental gift: the taloned claw of a Tao Tie, lopped off in a murky midnight attack two days’ travel from the Wall. Their scaly souvenir earns the attentions of bilingual commander Lin Maje (Jing Tian), and some wary respect; how have these foreigners managed to come so close to a creature that has never been captured alive?

As something between provisional prisoners and houseguests, William and Tovar are allowed to bear witness to a Tao Tie raid that unfolds like a sort of bloody green-screen Cirque du Soleil: Pounding drums and swirling silks, soldiers arcing a silvery stream of arrows across the sky or diving swan-like from raised platforms, daggered spears in hand. Even with flawless preparation and swarms of immaculately coordinated fighters at the ready, though, the battle begins to shift away from victory. But hark, who is this leaping into the breach, rescuing young cadets from certain death with a well-placed blade? William, the loner legionnaire who believes in nothing and no one! Is impressing the commander part of his escape-plan long game, or has he suddenly grown a conscious? Tovar and another member of the Wall’s involuntary-Caucasian-lodger club named Ballard (a haunted, predatory Willem Dafoe) don’t care to stick around to find out, though their own getaway strategy may have a few plot-shaped holes of its own.

Renowned director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero) has placed Westerners at the center of a fundamentally Chinese narrative before, notably with Christian Bale in 2011’s The Flowers of War, and he is clearly no stranger to the scope of scale of historical epics. But The Great Wall struggles mightily to transcend its two-dimensional storyline, a dull roteness not much helped by its zoological villains. The Tao Tie, which we are told are some sort of physical manifestation of human greed, snarl and snap and inhale hapless bystanders like stoners ripping into a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, but their reported intelligence never feels like more than hearsay; they can dig a tunnel and follow their queen’s orders in tail-swishing lockstep, but really, they’re just big nasty lizards. Zhang allows for a few small moments of buddy-cop comedy between Damon and Pascal (two dudes with no shortage of lethal weapons between them) and a whisper of implied romance with the sleek, high-ponied Tian. But the film’s CGI magic stays flatly on the screen, lit less by the bright flame of a true creative vision than the dull gleam in an international marketing executive’s eye. C+

The Great Wall
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes