A pack of mercenaries on horseback take refuge in a cave and are attacked by a mysterious creature. Taking the creature’s severed claw, the two survivors of the attack (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) travel to a nearby kingdom on the Great Wall, where they are captured and pulled into a war.
In terms of effects work, the inaugural action set piece that establishes the film’s war of monster versus man is quite good. It gets somewhat gaudy on the ground with a foggy sea of duplicated creature animations, but the systematic preparation for siege warfare is introduced with a strong rhythmic pace.
Indeed, though, the creatures are grotesque, but not in the intended fashion. The CG is cartoonish and video game-like in a way that doesn’t match the grim stoicism of the characters’ line deliveries.
In regard to this stoic pursuit, the stilted acting is something to get used to. That generic fantasy drawl is sported by the likes of Damon and Willem Defoe, and it is irritating at the onset. But in certain respects this deadpan, vaguely Western European lilt makes for some good moments of dry humor. It works for Damon the best, and one can even come accustomed to his accent over time, even when it fluctuates into unintentionally hilarious territories.
The basic story of The Great Wall is mildly interesting. A dual protagonist structure yields diverging goals that create some tension between characters. But it is the noticeable absence of action that keeps this tension from being intriguing beyond its own presence.
A handful of well executed action sequences keep The Great Wall from becoming part of the slowly growing subgenre of fantasy schlock. But is also fails to provide the wonderment of a properly built world and colorful cast of characters that a fantasy world like The Lord of the Rings provides (Lord of the Rings arguably remaining the standard fantasy action point of comparison).
Yimou Zhang’s knack for action direction helps the film, and it keeps everything from falling apart. Still, The Great Wall is a messy script that lacks intrigue and narrative drive. It is hard to take away anything substantive from this film behind its handful of entertaining action scenes, and even these are somewhat marred by their CG displays.
The Great Wall: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)