If you go into “The Great Wall” thinking of it as the new Matt Damon movie, let alone the new Zhang Yimou movie, you’re in for disappointment. But if you calibrate your expectations to “monster movie for eight-year-olds,” you may find some fun in this energetic and blissfully brief (a mere 103 minutes!) tale of the Chinese army battling alien beasties in the Song Dynasty era.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that a white Westerner like Damon sticks out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a very Chinese story — and he does — but when the plot revolves around the titular structure having been built to keep out creatures that look like the Rick Moranis dog-demon in “Ghostbusters,” historical accuracy has clearly already left the building.
Damon goes for an Irish accent that sounds more Irish-ish as William, a mercenary who has traveled all the way to China in search of the legendary black powder that has the power “to turn air into fire.” What started out as a sizable expedition is down to William and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, “Narcos”) after a nighttime attack by an unseen being; the only evidence the two have is a green claw that William sliced off before their assailant tumbled off a cliff.
That claw is of great interest to William and Tovar’s captors, members of the Nameless Order, an enormous army that has waited at the Great Wall for 60 years for the latest onslaught of the alien creatures, who apparently attack in six-decade cycles. (So this would be the … third time they’ve attacked, then? The movie doesn’t go into much detail on this point.)
William and Tovar are handcuffed, but when the monsters attack, they free themselves and prove they are valiant in battle; William is a crack archer, and Tovar is a wise-cracking sidekick. (And since he’s Spanish, he uses a red cape, matador-style, to send a scaly marauder to its demise.) Commander Lin (Tian Jing, “Kong: Skull Island”) gives the outsiders snazzy primary-color armor so they’ll fit in with the rest of the Order (who apparently took fashion notes from the Power Rangers). Meanwhile, fellow Westerner Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who’s been a prisoner in the Wall for 25 years, conspires with the men to steal the gunpowder and sneak off into the night.
Whether William will learn to trust others and to sacrifice himself for the greater good rather than rob the Nameless Order of their much-needed weaponry is about as close to a character arc as “The Great Wall” provides, but Zhang offers other delights, from the staggering numbers of extras (if they’re just CG, he’s hidden it well) to some stunning set pieces. Whether it’s a tower lit inside entirely by different colors of stained glass, Lin’s squadron of bungee-jumping warrior women, or the wall itself — which gets a movie-star entrance when it first appears on camera — Zhang offers dazzling visuals to keep the film from drowning in “Warcraft”-style earth-tone blobs of soldiers-versus-animated-creatures.
Those creatures, on the other hand, are fairly featureless, although they do answer to a queen whose methods of communicating to her subjects, and of being protected by those closest to her, make her a memorable monster-movie villain.
“The Great Wall” offers just enough Chinese characters who speak English to keep from creating a nightmare of translations in every conversation, and Jing — a Chinese star in the first of three films that will be widely seen in the U.S. — is comfortable in both languages, making her character both charismatic and formidable. (Lin plays as big a role as William, if not bigger, at fending off the alien armies.) He doesn’t get enough to do, but Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs”) also gives this goofy saga some much-needed stiff upper lip.
This is supposedly the most expensive film ever produced in China, but for all its lushness, the writing calls to mind low-budget Japanese children’s television of the 1960s. I never once thought about Zhang’s brilliant breakthrough “Raise the Red Lantern” while watching “The Great Wall,” but I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Ultra-Man had made a cameo appearance.