Opening a few miles from its namesake, The Great Wall introduces a group of European knaves who have somehow trekked to northwestern China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Most prominent among these thieves and mercenaries is William (Matt Damon), who's supposed to be British, although the actor doesn't further burden his stiff line readings with a feigned brogue. The outlanders' goal is to acquire some gunpowder, a Chinese invention with solid commercial prospects in war-happy Europe.
All the other rascals except Tovar (Chilean actor Pedro Pascal) are quickly dispatched. While being chased, the last two interlopers find their path blocked by that big wall and the troops that protect China from the menaces on the north side of the barrier. There are hundreds of color-coordinated warriors, but the important ones are strategist Wang (Hong Kong cinema lifer Andy Lau) and battalion commander Lin (Jing Tian, soon to be seen in Kong: Skull Island).
A lithe if blank beauty in skin-tight battle togs, Lin seems to have hatched not from Chinese lore but from Japanese anime. That's appropriate, since she and her cohorts defend China's capital from the Taotie, ravenous reptilian monsters with a strong family resemblance to Godzilla. (They also have zombie tendencies, and among the many credited writers — all Westerners — is World War Z author Max Brooks.)
This scenario may make The Great Wall sound entertainingly demented, but as so-nuts-it's-good spectacle, the movie disappoints. It's bonkers in theory, but prosaic in execution.
The monsters attack every 60 years, and are "evolving" intelligence at a rate that could make Darwinists reconsider the great man's theory. Led by their queen, the Taotie intend to breach the wall, attack the capital, and eat the boy emperor and everyone else. By comparison, the Cultural Revolution was a paper cut.
Most of the movie is devoted to quick-cut combat and creepy-monster mayhem. Occasionally, the rhythm slows so that Lin can teach William the Chinese virtues of cooperation and self-sacrifice. The lessons transform him, but prove less persuasive to Tovar and another English-speaking rogue who arrived earlier (Willem Dafoe). Those two scurry off to initiate a subplot while arrows fly, spears puncture, and red and green blood gushes.
Originally assigned to Edward Zwick, the film was ultimately directed by Zhang Yimou, but it's not a testament to his skill or sensibility. Zhang has balanced spectacle and social conscience in such powerful dramas as Raise the Red Lantern and staged dazzling action in fanciful romps such as House of Flying Daggers. This movie feels closer to a more nationalistic Zhang production: the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The director punctuates the warfare with pageantry: drum troupes, choreographed mass movements, and the release of thousands of airborne lanterns. Sometimes it seems that the Taotie, rather than scramble across the landscape with their jaws open, should march in orderly columns, wearing matching team jackets.
While the stagiest sequences are visually impressive, much of the movie is not. The 3D images feature lots of camera swoops and ostentatious closeups, and are sometimes as low-def as a holographic ring from a 1960s gumball machine. No one could have expected The Great Wall to make sense, but that it doesn't look very good is a nastier surprise than any shock cut of a looming mini-Godzilla.