Handsomely produced, “The Great Wall” has the feel of an old “B” movie, with a rudimentary plot that mashes up elements of everything from “Game of Thrones” to “Starship Troopers.” While casting Matt Damon in this Chinese-made film might not produce box-office glory in the U.S., if this isn’t a great movie, it’s certainly a pretty good one.
Having already opened successfully in China, the project exhibits a level of crass calculation in casting Damon and to a lesser degree “Thrones” alum Pedro Pascal as traveling mercenaries, caught up in a huge battle against a mythical threat. It’s not quite the equivalent of inserting Raymond Burr into the original “Godzilla,” but the thought process — give Western audiences an American star — remains roughly the same.
The result, however, is generally fun — a well-paced action movie that doesn’t waste much time on preliminaries or explanations before plunging headlong into a prolonged, elaborately orchestrated fight against a horde of ghastly creatures.
Damon and Pascal’s characters, William and Tovar, are a pair of grizzled warriors, traveling in ancient China seeking gun powder to peddle back home. They stumble upon a vast, color-coded army known as the Nameless Order, which is stationed along the Great Wall waiting for an invasion — having spent, as their leader says, “60 years preparing for this moment.”
The monsters are actually a reasonably stock bunch of beasts, known as Tao Tei, operating under the telepathic direction of a queen. The crisis forces William to question his avaricious ways, motivated in part by the lovely Commander Lin (Jing Tian), who leads a battalion of female soldiers in what’s a surprisingly forward-thinking fighting force.
Relying heavily on computer-generated graphics, the extended siege owes debts to the aforementioned movies, as well as “The Lord of the Rings.” The story nevertheless hums along briskly, with playful banter between Damon and Pascal, noble sacrifices and a stirring musical score courtesy of “Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi.
Nor, it should be noted, does Damon come across as a Great White Savior, as some initially feared; rather, he’s a wide-eyed if highly resourceful outsider, allowing the audience to see this epic, centuries-old conflict through his eyes.
Directed by Zhang Yimou, from a script credited (absurdly, given its generic contours) to a half-dozen writers, “The Great Wall” perhaps inevitably sags a bit toward the end, as it seems to be making up elements on the fly in an effort to craft a credible way of beating back the slavering horde. By then, though, the movie has delivered well enough to justify watching it on HBO, if not necessarily rushing to the multiplex.
The basic premise isn’t an easy marketing proposition compared to other aspiring blockbusters, which could blunt its commercial appeal. For those who take the trip, though, “The Great Wall” is solidly constructed, and despite its abundant visual effects, a sort-of old-fashioned exercise in workmanlike efficiency.