Go on. Make a joke about Donald Trump. Somehow dirty politics has managed to infect every face of our culture, so why not the first few sentences of my latest review? Take a moment, get it out of the system. Finished now? Need a minute to go post something on Facebook or Twitter? Can we get down to the business of the movie now? Great.
The real political story regarding “The Great Wall” involves China, who has been buying up movie studios like a fat man at an Entenmann’s donut shop. The world’s largest nation has become a new source of revenue for movie studios unable to recoup their blockbuster-sized investments in North America. A majority of big-budget movies make their profits outside of America. Now that Hollywood studios are partnering with Chinese investors, we’re ending up with a new crop of blockbusters pairing East with West.
This is potentially something awesome—especially for someone like me who unabashedly loves Asian cinema. I love the size and scope of their epics, like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” I love the raw, blunt delivery of their street-level action films. There are so many gems to find in Asian cinema. I was raised on these movies in a day and age when anyone could scan the UHF dial (Google it) and find all sorts of amazing martial-arts, B-movie masterpieces that would play late-night and on weekends. The idea of Asian cinema being done with popular American actors feels like wonderfully unexplored territory. Unfortunately, “The Great Wall” proves why this territory remained unexplored.
Matt Damon stars as William, a mercenary who’s examining ancient and distant lands before he finds himself on the wrong side of the Great Wall of China. He’s searching for gunpowder but instead discovers the love child of a Xenomorph from “Alien” and a crazy pit bull used by a drug dealer to keep people out of his yard. The murderous creatures are interested in one thing: total world destruction. The only thing standing between them is the Great Wall and a few 100,000 color-coded troops with some awesome (if impractical) weapons. William has to decide if he wants to give up his dream of riches to help these warriors save the world. This is mother-freakin’ Matt Damon, so of course he decides to be a noble guy and help save humanity.
Speaking of Damon, he sticks out like a sore thumb. In fact, perhaps the expression was created specifically for this bit of casting. Still, “sore thumb” might not be glaring enough. Damon sticks out like a passenger-van-sized sore thumb, covered in red glitter with flame-thrower spigots in the cuticle, dousing everything around it in napalm.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with “The Great Wall.” There are some really fun action sequences and amazing production design. This version of the Great Wall of China is constructed like a children’s action-figure set with giant arrows, rotating slicing blades and a series of chains that allow warriors to move up and down the wall while fighting. If I was a kid, I would totally want “The Great Wall Alien Dog Murdering” play-set. Hell, who am I kidding, even middle-aged me wants it.
The complications in “The Great Wall” come from a combination of big-screen presence (Damon) and this stylized historical epic from notable director Yimou Zhang: two great tastes that taste weird together‚ like ordering a bowl of pho and having it served with a McGriddle floating on top. Damon is a great actor, but he strains the very concept of credibility playing an old-world warrior. Some actors have the chops to pull off a role like that, and most have a far-less impressive pedigree. A movie like “The Great Wall” feels odd with Damon in the lead. He spends most of his scenes with a steely expressionless stare, perfectly suited for Jason Bourne but kind of lifeless here. William never feels like a real person, nor does he blend in with the rest of the cast in terms of selling suspension of disbelief. It’s always like, “Hey look, it’s Matt Damon and an army of Chinese badasses.”
There isn’t a moment where audiences are immersed into a new and engaging world. It’s like watching an A-list actor disjointed from this particular genre. “The Great Wall” doesn’t have much to offer other than some beautiful imagery and a couple of good action sequences.