The film opens with a group of traveling merchants/mercenaries from the West, led by William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal). The mercenaries are in search of the black power, an unknown but powerful substance which they have heard the Chinese have mastered and weaponized. During their travels, they come across the Great Wall, a structure the likes of which they have never seen, and are questioned by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jang) and the rest of the Chinese army about their purpose in China and their encounter with a strange beast on their travels. The beasts, known as Taotie, are creatures who have been terrorizing China for centuries, causing the army to build the wall and defend it forever. Thus, William and Tovar must decide whether to help the Chinese defend their lands (and, potentially, the world) or break out with the black powder they initially sought.
The Great Wall is the most average and generic of spectacle action films, offering little in the way of innovation or originality in most aspects. It’s story is something that everyone has seen in some way, shape or form before, be it in a good film like The Last Samurai or a bad film like Warcraft. The characters are cardboard cutouts of characters we have seen done better in a hundred different films, which is especially apparent in every scene with Matt Damon’s William. Through his vaguely Scottish (I think) accent, Damon tries to put on the roguishness of Han Solo, but the film’s dialogue lacks any of the charm that made Solo work in Star Wars. Occasionally, Damon and Pascal’s sheer charm burst through the generic, dull writing, but moments of genuine character interaction are few and far between.
Because of the lack of character depth and meaningful interaction, scenes of the film that are supposed to carry emotional weight fall flat. A character of major importance dies at about the halfway point in the film, and there are about four minutes of ceremony and mourning after they die, but there was so little in the way of setting up that character or interacting with them in any way other than spouting exposition that the scenes felt shallow and underwhelming. The special effects are pretty bad as well, which is unfortunate considering the only real positive I can pull from the film is that is has a very interesting visual style. A few times I found myself saying “This movie isn’t very good, but I have to admit, that was pretty cool.” The design of the armor for the Chinese soldiers is captivating, and I honestly think a documentary about the armor itself would have been more interesting than this dry, sameish waste of potential.
Part of me actually wishes this film were worse, so I would at least feel like I had some sort of emotional reaction to it. But every aspect (other than the interesting visual style) is so blasé that I left the theatre feeling almost nothing toward the film. In the end, I found myself thinking like a parent who had just caught their child doing something naughty. I wasn’t angry, just disappointed.