If The Great Wall is to be believed, the titular edifice wasn’t built to protect against invading Mongols—contrary to what countless history teachers and The Discovery Channel has taught us. Rather, its awe-inspiring construction has served to keep a perpetually enraged (and dreadfully ugly) alien species at bay. Said species, which resembles equal parts rhinoceros, dog and dragon, regenerates every few generations. Thus, it’s up to The Nameless ones (a faction of highly-skilled and fearless elite Chinese warriors) and two motley (yet loveable and scrappy) European soldiers of fortune, to save the day.
The year is roughly 1000 AD, during the Song Empire. Matt Damon plays Tovar, one half of a team of mulleted European mercenaries (frankly, it was a surprise to see Damon’s name in the ending credits, since this reviewer spent the entire movie thinking that the lead was played by Mark Walberg). While seeking answers about what kind of creature attacked them and killed their buddies in the dead of night, they find themselves captured and imprisoned by very determined and organized Chinese soldiers whose leader, General Shao and his second-in-command, Strategist Wang, are amazed that Tovar was able to wound one of the invincible-seeming creatures during battle. Since slavering monsters surround the military base, they have little choice but to learn about the army’s mission. Thus, these two self-interested scamps learn about how to care about others and to choose a cause in the midst of the snapping jaws and bloodshed of an alien invasion. Damon (in an attempt to seem affable and unafraid of death) plays the role as if he has been administered a strong sedative and can barely summon up the energy to run from the slavering monsters.
One of the featured set pieces of the movie is presented as a major military coup: a small, elite faction of female warriors (chosen, I suppose, for their agility and small stature) strap their feet into harnesses and fling themselves off the parapet into the fray below. In an approximation of extreme bungee jumping, they stab at the monsters with spears and other weaponry as they reach the allotted length of rope. Naturally, the hell beasts leap up to snap at these folks dangling helplessly, like morsels of tasty meat just waiting to be devoured. Whose idea was this particular military tactic? It seems, at the very least, ineffectual. At worst, it’s a way for scores of highly trained, devoted soldiers to disappear into the aliens’ greedy maws in a matter of seconds. Isn’t this why cauldrons of boiling oil were invented: keeping masses of the enemy away from the fortress gates? If they didn’t have oil on hand, scalding water would have sufficed. Even dropping heavy boulders or bricks on the monsters might have taken a few more out that this complicated gymnastics routine.
The ornate, colorful armor provided the most emotional gravitas. The exquisite headpieces and brilliant breastplates were beautifully thought out and executed—especially during the impressive formations and drills performed by various classifications of warriors. Other than the outfits, however, there wasn’t much to become emotionally invested in.
The goal of providing more plentiful and compelling epic movie roles to nonwhite actors is a worthwhile one, and China especially is an emerging market whose growing middle class is eager for worthwhile films. It seems like the Chinese film industry and Hollywood could join forces to form lucrative and fulfilling hybrids. However, The Great Wall is merely a middling example of this potential alliance.