If you missed the chapter in your history book about ancient China being attacked by an army of giant flesh-eating lizards, then The Great Wall can happily fill you in.
This big-budget adventure from director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) is an extreme exercise in spectacle over substance in which eye-popping visuals take precedence over narrative coherence.
At least the film is up front about separating fact from “legend,” and which side it falls on. But does that excuse a generic period action movie with stiff dialogue and shallow characters? The lush cinematography and seamless 3D visual effects are certainly impressive, even if the bilingual screenplay doesn’t bother with much historical context.
The story ostensibly takes place shortly after completion of the wall, although the exact time frame isn’t clear. Matt Damon stars as a warrior from an outside land who becomes imprisoned along with his colleague (Pedro Pascal) while trying to purloin some ammunition.
When they reveal an encounter with a vicious supernatural creature, which turns out to be one of many such beasts planning an attack on the Chinese people, the outsider is freed to join the local military — at the request of an alluring female commander (Jing Tian) — and lead the effort to prevent mass destruction.
Amid the far-fetched nonsense, Damon’s character provides some unintentional laughs along the way with his ridiculous facial hair and macho lines such as: “I’m alive today because I trust no one.”
Only sporadically does the film hint at more intriguing explorations of spirituality, cultural tradition and the sociopolitical landscape of the time. But then another monster attacks, bearing its massive teeth, ready to devour any dramatic depth while it’s still hot.
Indeed, there’s some fun to be had if you check your brain at the door. The bulk of the film is a barrage of visually spectacular action sequences with menacing creatures, slow-motion shots of arrows and fireballs, and death defying swordplay — with the 5,500-mile wall as the centerpiece. So while it’s not exactly a wonder of the world, it’s certainly not boring.
There’s a somewhat intriguing backstory to the international nature of the production for those who care to investigate. As for what’s on screen, it all leads to a predictably elaborate final showdown showing that conveys the cheesy intent. When it comes to emotional investment, The Great Wall crumbles.
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.