I have conflicting feelings for Zhang Yimou's "The Great Wall": a U.S./China co-production with Matt Damon in the lead. I like the basic monster-movie concept, but at times the construction feels pretentious: created, perhaps, to teach us something, but falling flat, due to its perplexing padding.
Damon's character, William, is a youngish looking chap (mainly because that's Damon's guise, even when he sports a beard at the story's start), who also happens to be a 12th Century adventurer, in search of a destructive, black powder for the reckless European scene. He travels with a group of other enterprising gents, including a good-buddy Spaniard named Tovar (Pedro "Game of Thrones" Pascal), ever farther into the East to gain this precious commodity, but in the process, cuts into China at a time when ferocious behemoths feast.
Per Carlo Bernard, Tony Giroy and Doug Miro's script, that's why the Great Wall was built, you see, to keep these creatures out, the rise of which occurs every sixty years or so, when their hibernation periods cease.
The monsters are called the Tao Tei: most of which look dragon-like (though wingless and shadowed throughout) and could have been presented (with a wee sum of modification) no-more-or-less as such. Well, if they are, in fact, supposed to be dragons, at least we have a new angle as to how they came to roam the land. Like dragons of tradition, they growl, snap and claw, but never croak flames. The Chinese, on the other hand, spring a fiery defense in prevention and retaliation of attack.
Willem Dafoe also takes part as a guy named Ballard: like William and Tovar, a visitor to China, who's more enigmatic than gallant. For what it's worth, he and Tovar eventually consider getting the hell out of the mess, while the mighty William remains steadfast. He's the hero, after all.
His presence demonstrates that one can change from a lethal-powder seeker to one who appreciates the culture and plight of his hosts. Oddly enough, the Chinese featured can't achieve the task at hand, even though they've been preparing for it their entire lives. Hell, they built a damn wall to flank their foes, but so much for that. This makes "Great Wall" a story more of acceptance and assimilation than of logic, but it's real hard to shake why it takes a kiddish Westerner to show these tenacious warriors the way. (It's odd, too, that with all the flack "Gods of Egypt" received for its alleged, racial slant, this one gets off scot-free.)
The script at least avoids romance, though in doing so, leaves its leading lady, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the head of the spear-geared Nameless Order, to act as mere window dressing. She's tough enough to be the film's stand-out feminist, but in all honesty, if she wasn't involved, the story would have flowed just as well.
In the end, William devises an explosive means to halt the Toa Tei. The execution may be a tad silly, but it does help wrap things up with adequate zest, as does Yimou's directorial style: fast and dizzying as it charges toward its impetuous climax, which looks great in IMAX 3D.
Alas, "Great Wall" would have worked better rendered in a more straight-forward style; even at roughly ninety minutes, it's awfully bloated with all its superfluous, motivational bridges. (Toho, no doubt, would have done it leaner and cleaner.) Still, this one's worth a shot if one fancies giant, period-piece monsters, and fans of such will probably find it worth collecting when the time of purchase comes.