The topic of this film interested me a lot -- the Great Wall of China. I had my apprehensions about Matt Damon being one of the lead stars of a film about ancient China, but that did not stop my interest in seeing it. The fact that this was director Zhang Yimou's first English-language film added to the interest. I purposely did not read up on what "The Great Wall" was about, nor did I see any full trailers about it before going to watch. That ignorance about the plot turned out to be a big mistake.
English mercenary William Garin was in China looking for the fabled and precious "black powder" used to make powerful weapons. They were captured and taken prisoner by brightly color-coded Chinese troops the Nameless Order, an army who trained their whole lives to fight a massive horde of alien reptilian monsters called the Taotie which attack the kingdom every 60 years over the past 2,000 years.
Yes, you read that right -- alien reptilian monsters!
I have to confess that I was totally taken by surprise by this outlandish plot. Here I was expecting a serious historical film, and here comes something totally out of extreme left field. When I first saw those green beasts rushing towards the wall, I was in shock, in a bad way. The cartoonish computer-generated imagery of these monsters were so poorly executed, it was comically terrible to watch.
Damon looked ill at ease during the entire duration of his screen time. I can't believe that an A-list actor of his caliber is involved in a ridiculous film like this. He never looked right as an unscrupulous murderous mercenary at all from the start. When he predictably turned hero midway, it was not surprising a bit. By then though, I was so exasperated and baffled about the things I was seeing onscreen already. Damon in heroic mode could not save it for me anymore.
OK, it was not a total bust. The Chinese aesthetics in the production and costume designs with those brightly multicolored army uniforms and display of battle skills were grandiose to witness. There were also positive Chinese ideals being espoused, particularly about trust, which was specially highlighted and reiterated. Chinese actors like Jing Tian, Andy Lau and Lu Han (formerly from EXO boyband) get big roles as heroic warriors in a Hollywood film.
However, these positives do not make up for some lousy history details (like about Chinese learning about magnets from Westerners) or that maddeningly simplistic solution to their major problem (really now -- kill one, kill all?) The big anxiety about the White Savior plot line was NOT unfounded. I am just thankful to be spared a full romantic subplot between William and Commander Lin. The hint was bad enough. 3/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."