Director Zhang Yimou has made some of the most ravishingly beautiful films to come out of China, including “Raise the Red Lantern,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and “Hero,” movies that are lavishly sensual in their use of color and light. His fans will have to cherish those memories though, as his first English-language film, “The Great Wall,” puts his many talents in the service of compromise, global marketing, misguided star power, and 3-D glasses.
This CGI-constructed “Great Wall,” with its $150 million budget and Hollywood connections, is the most expensive film ever made in China. But because the filmmakers — the story and screenplay are credited to a team that includes Max Brooks (“World War Z”), Ed Zwick (“The Last Samurai”), Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Identity”) and Carlo Bernard (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) — seemed to have an eye on the worldwide box-office, “The Great Wall,” despite its title and setting, is a made-by-committee monster movie that could have come from anywhere.
Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones,” “Narcos”) are William Garin and Pero Tovar, respectively, two mercenaries from the West who are in medieval China to hunt for the secret “black powder” (gunpowder) they’ve heard so much about. At the Great Wall, they’re captured by an army of border guards called the Nameless Order, overseen by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). But both sides soon have more on their minds as they’re under attack by the Tao Tei, bloodthirsty lizard monsters of legend from the nearby mountains that rouse themselves to attack every 60 years.
It’s a fun idea to think that the Great Wall was built not just to keep out barbarians and nomads but a wildly inhuman evil. And, in typical Yimou fashion, there are some beautiful set pieces, especially in the sprawling Nameless Order fortress as everyone prepares for war.
Predictably, William finds in the Nameless Order something worth fighting for beyond himself. For everyone else, character development seems to be about as rare as that black powder, especially for Willem Dafoe, whose cowardly character mostly ended up on the cutting-room floor, apparently. The film feels rushed, and it really only comes alive when the Tao Tei are on the rampage.
There are some big-league Asian actors involved — pop star Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Kenny Ling Gengxin, Andy Lau — but, with the exception of Lu Han as a nervous soldier, they’re generally not given much to do. Damon hogs most of the spotlight, like the Tao Tei at feeding time.
Yet his performance as a reluctant hero with freakishly impressive Tao Tei slaughtering skills is unremarkable. He comes across as just another cog in the special-effects machine. (No surprise, “The Great Wall” sparked controversy over what has been called the “whitewashing” of an Asian story in which, to quote a tweet “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu sent about the film, “only a white man can save the world.”)
Even as a cross-cultural marketing exercise, “The Great Wall” may fall short. It proved to be underwhelming at the Chinese box office and received generally mixed to negative reviews there, with one online critic savaging it with a one-line review: “Zhang Yimou has died.” (The Chinese government has not been happy with the response, calling the reviews “vicious and irresponsible.”)
Two years ago, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, and Jackie Chan starred in “Dragon Blade,” another period-piece, action-adventure film set along the Chinese frontier that also was made with a global audience in mind. While “The Great Wall” is not nearly as laughably bad as “Dragon Blade,” it feels like a bigger squandering of time and talent.
For sheer spectacle though, “The Great Wall” has its crowd-pleasing pleasures. As in the similarly disappointing zombie film “World War Z,” the large-scale invasion of the CGI hordes can be a thing of digital beauty.
Yet as a team effort between the planet’s two largest movie markets, “The Great Wall” feels shoddily constructed. Surely, the hive mind of 1.3 billion Chinese and 320 million Americans can do better.