The Great Wall is a so-so movie with eye-popping images: giant ill-tempered iguanas munching medieval warriors, bungee-jumping China dolls spearing them, Matt Damon's man bun. Sights you can't forget.
Zhang Yimou is a dazzler from way back in Asian cinema, but most Americans likely know him from all those drums and aerial dancers he directed at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The Great Wall is pretty much the same thing with sharp fangs and less plot. You probably got fed up with the Olympics show, too.
Damon is Zhang's hope for U.S. success, a face to place on the poster despite being totally wrong for the part. He's William, a mercenary searching China for a legendary black powder that can spark fire from air. He means gunpowder but guns haven't been invented yet. Just clay pots and fuses. We'll get to those.
William is accompanied by Tovar (Pedro Pascal) in a poorly written Butch and Sundance sort of way, needling but loyal. They're the only survivors of a night attack by something William kills by slicing off its rapidly petrified claw, keeping it for a souvenir. Their search leads to the Great Wall of China and Zhang's reason for why something so massive was built.
It's to keep out the Tao Tei, of course. Those iguanas I mentioned, which charge the wall every 60 years, ant-scale it like zombies from World War Z (Max Brooks did co-write the story) and snatch-gobble warriors to feed queen Tao Tei. Let's see Beyoncé top that.
Since William actually killed one of these things, he and Tovar get to live. First they need to ditch that grubby Revenant look for something more Last Samurai, hence Damon's man bun. It gets the attention of Comm. Lin (Jing Tian), the wall guard's tough second-in-command, but promotion is just an angry iguana away. She teaches William the importance of loyalty to a cause, not for money. That and watching Willem Dafoe play weak are the crux of whatever "drama" develops between Tao Tei assaults.
Those action sequences are repetitive, just the iguanas charging straight into the 3-D camera without flossing after their last meal. Zhang sends hundreds of digital arrows into their hides while commanders order, "Go for the eyes!" We never see what happens when someone hits the eyes.
But Zhang keeps coming up with wacky set designs making viewers wonder what this or that is for, then when he shows us it's something weirdly irresistible. Why would (and how could) the Great Wall have a turret that opens like a garage door in the middle? So giant scissors can protrude, snipping Tao Teis in two as they climb. What are those unfolding dive platforms for? Oh, that just the bungee spear babes.
Bad movie. Good times.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] and (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.
The Great Wall
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Kenny Lin, Eddie Ping
Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Rating: PG-13; fantasy action violence
Running time: 97 min.