'The Great Wall' entertains but is thick as a brick


“The Great Wall” – A lifelong thief (Matt Damon) and his equally shifty friend (Pedro Pascal) run through China’s mountainous desert and search for the weapon of their dreams. Black powder. They communicate with few words along with some occasional grunts and resemble a pair of mangy characters straight out of the “Conan the Barbarian” films.

Probably traveling for years in this barren land, they stumble upon the Great Wall of China, which is 5,500 miles long according to the film’s opening credits and my personal, after-the-film-search on Wikipedia. That staggering statistic impresses, but so does the Nameless Order, a battle-tested army sitting atop of the massive structure and waiting for a particular enemy who only strikes once every 60 years.

One does not need to wait 60 years for this new enemy in movie theatres, because the Tao Tei - an insidious, malevolent swarm of creatures - attack the Nameless Order in relatively swift fashion shortly after the movie begins. Director Yimou Zhang (“Hero” (2002), “House of the Flying Daggers” (2004)), known for his cinematic artistry, absolutely does not visually disappoint, especially with thousands of colorfully decorated soldiers moving in a choreographed ballet. Thunderous drumming carries a relentless and beautiful tempo, as the previously mentioned men and women move into harm’s way, aiming for the kill. Many such moments truly stir wonder and outright awe, especially the daredevils of the Order’s Crane Corps.

“The Great Wall” may wonderfully capture gorgeous, visual awe, but inversely, it rests terribly thin on plot, logic and consistent narratives. One might begin to sense this after about five minutes of screen time, but the picture will confirm these early suspicions, when we do not learn the names of the two thieves until the film’s 33rd minute, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal). Sure, this movie is pillared by wild action pieces, but it would be nice to - at least - know the main protagonists’ names.

Who are the Tao Tei anyway? Where do they come from, and why do they attack only once every 60 years?

After a while, one might simply accept and embrace the mystery of it all, including this critic. On the other hand, the film offers a confusing, fragmented explanation, which mentions a potential alien origin hell-bent on revenge from 2,000 years ago, I think? They also only attack once every 60 years, but maybe they’re catching up on Netflix, six decades at a time. It is certainly plausible in this film.

What is not plausible? To ignore the other unexplained truths. For instance, the Nameless Order constantly harps about protecting the “secret of The Wall”, which is the Tao Tei, themselves. But why? If the Order reached out for help once every 60 years or so, wouldn’t they stand a better chance against this maybe-alien race of beings? It usually takes about 15 warriors to bring down just one Tao Tei, so the numbers are already not in the Order’s favor.

The Tao Tei outnumber the Order, and they are supposedly very intelligent, but they might need a better war planning manual. On one occasion, they are about to overrun the Order, but then suddenly and inexpicably retreat.

In another case, they only send two on a spy mission who walk on top of the wall, the very wall that they previously tried to overrun with hundreds of thousands at one time. So, how do these two climb to the top?

None of the absurdity would gel for anyone with an average sense of patience, but instead of breeding frustration, these moments become temporarily forgiven because of Zhang’s inclusion of well-timed camp, especially with William and Tovar. Despite the brutal violence, the tones are sometimes light and swashbuckling, and Commander Lin (Tian Jing) successfully buys into them with her dual role of an unflinching, fierce commander and a potential love interest for William.

It might be impossible to critically-love this movie and terribly easy to hate it. I believe that I am caught in an in-between netherworld of amazement, especially after a bumpy opening with a few minutes of grunts by bearded barbarian-types. Quite a weird and winding journey from A to B. Seemed like about 5,500 miles.

(2/4 stars)

Image credits: Universal Pictures