Creature features like Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s sprawling $150 million fantasy epic “The Great Wall” (* OUT OF ****) must bristle with monsters that not only send a chill down your spine but also paralyze you with fear. Sadly, neither Yimou, who helmed “House of Flying Daggers,” nor his lackluster special effects team have conjured up monsters that would frighten a cat. The toothy but mange-ridden reptilian quadruples that swarm over, around, and under the eponymous wall resemble a horde of demented Tasmanian devils. Mind you, these predators hunt like ravenous wolves, but they look far more hilarious than intimidating. When a multi-million-dollar movie sinks a fortune on such an egregious example of monsters, you’d think the producers would have shown greater imagination. Why actors as respected as Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe would grace this expensive, but lame-brained, hybrid Hollywood/Chinese co-production with their presence remains baffling, too. “The Great Wall” evoked memories of the abysmal Keanu Reeves escapade “47 Ronin” (2013) because both movies depicted how a European outsider intervened to save Asians from virtual annihilation. Mind you, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scribes Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro along with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” scribe Tony Gilroy have concocted a premise about Medieval European mercenaries–Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe— drifting around China on a quest for the fabled gunpowder. Naturally, the Chinese refuse to share the secret of gunpowder with these barbarians since it constituted the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the bow & arrow era. Eventually, our outcast heroes find refuge within the ranks of an army of intrepid Chinese warriors after Damon’s mercenary protagonist miraculously manages to slay one of these absurd beasts. Worse than its Rat Fink-style monsters, “The Great Wall” generates minimal suspense and few surprises with its preposterously formulaic plot. Once you lay your eyes on these bogus Tao Tei monsters you may clamor for a refund on your ticket.
William (Matt Damon of “The Bourne Identity”) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal of “Hermanas”) have spent their entire lives on the battlefield and dispatched adversaries with as little regard for them as we might stomp cockroaches. Having embarked on an ambitious journey to the Far East, our heroes set out to acquire the legendary black powder that will escalate combat to a more devastating intensity. Unfortunately, attrition in form of marauding enemies as well as enigmatic creatures has whittled their numbers down until only William and Tovar remain. At one point, three of their comrades vanish under suspicious circumstances, and William slashes a big, green claw off something that he cannot see. Our heroic duo doesn’t last long in the sprawling Gobi Desert before Chinese soldiers of the Nameless Order surround and usher them off to their leaders. General Shao (Hanyu Zhang of “White Vengeance”) and his second-in-command Lin Mae (Ting Jing of “Police Story: Lockdown”) have assembled a massive army atop a gargantuan wall where they maintain surveillance on the surrounding countryside. They interrogate William and Tovar and are prepared to execute them as intruders until they discover the severed claw of a Tao Tei monster among William’s belongings. They change their attitude about these two and let them live. As it turns out, another European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe of “John Wick”), who has been a Chinese prisoner for about 25 years, blundered unbidden into their land in search of black powder, too. They didn’t kill him, and during that time, Ballard has taught Lin Mae how to speak English.
No sooner have the Chinese captured our heroes than William and Tovar collaborate secretly with Ballard about an escape plan. Initially, something stands in their way. A scourge of hideous reptiles endowed with surprising intelligence has been plaguing China. These fiendish creatures show up every 60 years with regularity, and a queen supervises their activities by means of sound vibrations. As Strategist Wang (Andy Lau of “Infernal Affairs”) explains it, these carnivores have been terrorizing China for 22 centuries because one emperor wallowed in greed so wanton that a meteor crashed into a mountain and unleashed this pestilence. Consequently, the Chinese constructed the ‘Great Wall’ to contend with this blight, but they have achieved only minimal success, despite having an arsenal gun powder that they deploy in explosives of various dimensions. Furthermore, these beasts, with eyes located in their shoulders and heads bristling with a porcupine of deadly teeth, have learned over the years how to adapt to the strategies that the Chinese have devised to kill them. William finds himself at a turning point during this predicament. He discovers that fighting for wealth no longer motivates him as an individual. Instead, he learns from the noble Numberless Order that trust supersedes money. Meantime, all Tovar wants is to escape with Ballard; Ballard has been plotting his escape, and he has a route and parcels of the explosive black powder to take back to Europe. During a confrontation on the wall with these monsters, General Shao is mortally wounded by a Tao Tei, and he passes command of the army to Lin Mae. Lin Mae finds herself in an even worse situation than General Shao because the Tao Tei have figured out that it is the cities rather than the great wall where they should concentrate their energy. The Tao Tei stop attacking the wall and swarm off to the capital like an inexorable horde to eat the emperor. The evil Tao Tei queen with her tiara and her inner circle of lizard bodyguards that sprout shields to protect her is truly hilarious. Lin Mae and a few select soldiers pilot ancient balloons to fly to the capital to save the Emperor. William decides to risk his life on this perilous expedition while Tovar and Ballard escape with quantities of gun powder. Despite being the most expensive Chinese movie ever produced with a distinguished cast of Asian actors, “The Great Wall” resembles something that the goofy SyFy Channel would have cooked up to top its sophomoric “Sharknado” sagas.