All these years later, it still is weird to think of Matt Damon as an action hero. When his career began, starring in and writing the screenplay for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, he seemed too ordinary, too sweet, to ever be part of that ultra-macho genre. (The joke of his character in 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven was that he wasn’t nearly as cool as the rest of the smooth crew, especially George Clooney and Brad Pitt.) But 2002’s The Bourne Identity changed that impression, altering his persona from that of the milquetoast everyman to a lean, brutal assassin. Since then, he’s done Bourne sequels as well as Green Zone and Elysium, and yet he still carried that whiff of an Average Joe to these roles, dropping the customary swagger and excessive testosterone.
Is that why he seems so ridiculous in The Great Wall? In grasping the weirdness of this movie, it’s as good a place to start as any, but to be fair to Damon, there is much that’s off about this nutty period-piece monster movie. And in an era in which Hollywood-China co-productions are going to become a more common occurrence, what’s so dispiriting about The Great Wall is that this dull oddity may just be a sign of things to come.
Damon plays William, a 12th-century Irish soldier who’s traveled the globe with his faithful companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) in search of the next army willing to pay them to help fight its wars. Looking for money and sanctuary, they find themselves in China, where they appeal to the Nameless Order, a group of local warriors led by Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and Wang (Andy Lau) who are nervously guarding the country’s Great Wall. The threat comes in the form of a vicious horde of sizable lizard-like monsters known as the Tao Tei, which are trying to ransack the country. Only the Great Wall—and William and his cohorts—can save China from these fearsome critters.
The Great Wall has a clever historical anachronism as its hook: What if a bunch of soldiers with only swords and arrows had to square off with scary, rampaging monsters? Combining horror, action, and period spectacle, the movie is directed by Zhang Yimou, who started out as one of China’s most respected art-house filmmakers thanks to Raise the Red Lantern and To Live. His career has since traveled down several unlikely, sometimes unsuccessful roads, from classy martial-arts fare (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) to misbegotten Coen brothers remakes (his Blood Simple homage A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop).
In between, he also designed China’s opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics, and The Great Wall feels like he’s still trying to wow viewers with metric tons of elaborate, exhausting pageantry. Zhang conceives his action sequences with a grandeur that often makes the human characters secondary to the lavish design. One battle scene is draped in thick fog, William having to feel his way through the muck to determine how close the Tao Tei are to him so he doesn’t get devoured. Elsewhere, lanterns silently float through the air toward the heavens. And when things threaten to get too tranquil, firebombs detonate amidst clusters of Tao Tei, the carnage both gnarly and beautiful. Very little of The Great Wall is emotionally resonant, but it’s all rather pretty.
Because The Great Wall was filmed in China and consists mostly of a Chinese cast—Willem Dafoe as a conniving, scene-chewing European is one of the only other Western actors—there have been complaints that Damon is playing the typical white-savior role. But to watch The Great Wall is to realize that such cultural concerns aren’t really warranted. It’s not that the film doesn’t peddle that narrative trope—it’s just that so little of this movie betrays a hint of conscious thought that it’s just about impossible to be offended. The screenplay—credited to three writers, while the original story was authored by three other writers—is a generic hero’s journey. William proudly proclaims early on that he’s a survivor because he doesn’t trust anyone, making it all the more heroic later when he decides maybe he should start trusting people. He’s the only character who changes, but everybody in The Great Wall is just another variation on war-movie types—you’re never sure who will make it to the end of the film because, really, they all seem expendable.
Damon does bring a little wit to the proceedings, his deadpan punch lines undercutting the epic solemnity. But considering that he’s not always a believable action hero when he’s not playing Jason Bourne, it sure doesn’t help matters when, in The Great Wall, he’s portraying a character who mostly sails through the air in slow motion firing arrows at passing monsters. You’ll never buy that this guy is some hardened mercenary but, then again, I could barely believe he’d be sporting that ludicrous ponytail, either.
Damon’s Chinese costars have come down with the same strain of bland nobility that infects him. As the woman who must become a leader after her commanding officer is killed, Jing has real presence, raising hopes for her appearance in two forthcoming Hollywood productions, Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising. And Pascal is fun as William’s ornery sidekick. But the greatest impression is made by those toothy, frightening monsters who can climb walls, jump long distances, and make terrifying noises while they’re gobbling up humans.
Zhang directs all of this with competence and visual flair, but The Great Wall feels like an awkward dub of an action movie from another language. Which, in a way, it is: Hollywood is desperate to get its films in front of Chinese audiences, which means catering directly to that market as much as possible. In the past, with Iron Man and Transformers films, the pandering included casting a few Asian actors or setting the final act in major Chinese cities. The Great Wall is the next step in this cynical strategy, focusing mostly on Chinese talent and locations and then bringing in the one big American star to lead the whole thing. Maybe eventually the mixture of cultures will feel more cohesive. But here, all the excitement and suspense gets lost in translation.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.