The Great Wall is often impressive looking, usually exciting and always kind of dumb. The much of the plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and the character arcs are more haphazard lurching about than any real growth, but somehow the whole thing remains enjoyable anyway. A lot of that comes from the charisma of the two leads. There was much consternation about casting Matt Damon as the lead in this movie set in ancient China, but the finished product feels less about a white savior and more a somehow simultaneously heartfelt and cynical collaboration between East and West.
The Great Wall starts with a group of European mercenaries traveling East, hoping to find and steal the legendary explosive black powder. Chief among this group are William (Matt Damon), a highly skilled archer, and Tovar (Pedro Pascal). After a run in with some kind of green creature that kills their companions, they end up captured by The Nameless Order, an army that guards the Great Wall against the taotie, those green creatures that William and Tovar encountered. After witnessing a battle between the Nameless Order, including General Lin Mei, the two of them must decide if they want to help fight this inhuman menace or steal the black powder and hightail it back to Europe.
The CGI for the tao tei ranges from passable to just north of terrible, but in all other respects this movie looks amazing. The defenders of the wall wear color coded armor and fight in unison. The spectacle is often ridiculous, like the Crane Troop, who bungie jump from the wall to impale the charging monster with spears, but it always looks good. The acting is more hit or miss. It is one thing with the Chinese actors sounding stilted when speaking crazy dialogue in a second language, less understandable is Matt Damon’s inconsistent Irish (?) accent or Tovar’s over the top Spanish patois. The fighting itself is often a touch perfunctory, with a lot of crazy strategies shown before most the killing happens behind a fog
The movie occasionally reaches the heights it aspires to, when all sense falls away and the nonsense transports the viewer to this fantasy version of China. It happens when watching the workings of The Great Wall, as well as when the mount everyone on hot air balloons. It also works well when Damon lightens up a little, like when William and Tovar banter. There is an ideological through line, with the thoroughly selfish William, a soldier since childhood who has fought for and against everyone, learning to trust in something bigger than just himself.
There is a touch of that white savior narrative, but the movie wisely steps back from it several times. William does do incredible things, he is a skilled archer, but the bigger hero moments are mostly taken by the members of the Nameless Order. He did kill one of the tao tie by himself at the start of the movie, but it is soon discovered that he only managed to do so because he carried a magnet, which throws off the beasts hive mind. While William is integral to several battles, Lin Mei is the one who comes out looking like a hero.
That is kind of why I see this movie as being a genuine attempt to make a movie that crosses the East West divide. There is certainly some cynicism there, just look at Stephen Chow’s recent efforts. The Mermaid grossed over 500 million dollars in China, but couldn’t even get a real theatrical release in the USA. But if it had a big time American star to put on the poster, like Matt Damon, then I am sure we would have had the chance to see it. That cynicism aside, I believe that Legendary Pictures, as well as director Zhang Yimou and the cast, were genuinely trying to make a blockbuster that was as appealing to China as it was to America and vice versa. I think they mostly succeeded. This is not a movie about the white guy showing up to show the Chinese how it’s done, is more about a white guy showing up and learning how the Chinese do it. William ends up looking heroic, but no more than Lin Mei or strategist Wang.
The Great Wall is a flawed, frequently dumb movie that isn’t quite ready to have fun with its insanity. It is not a going to be remembered among the great fantasy films, but it is enjoyable enough for what it is.