Going into the theater to watch The Great Wall, with Matt Damon being the great white savior of all of China, I was rather predisposed to not care for it. Imagine my surprise when leaving the theater a few hours later when I had to admit, I'd had a great time.
The story turns out to be that William (played by Damon) is a European mercenary who has been on a quest to capture the secrets of black powder and to return it to the West. He and the remnants of his band have been hounded by Mongols, having already been reduced from an original force of 20 men down to a handful. By the time William reaches the wall at here's only William and a Spaniard named Tovar remaining (played by Pedro Pascal). It turns out that he's reached the wall just ahead of a recurring attack which happens every 60 years of a rampaging hoard of monsters.
The wall is manned with a huge army of color-coordinated troops which are about the furthest thing from anything period since the last episode of Reign. The monsters arrive in short order and all hell breaks out. William turns out to be a crack shot with a bow and helps with the wall's defense.
From here it's pretty standard fare, the Chinese troops don't trust William; he doesn't want to be there – he just wants to find black powder and be gone; he finds a purpose there; they all fight to save the wall from falling to the rampaging horde. If you're after historical accuracy – don't see this one or you'll wind up with a facial tick by the time it's over. However if you're a fan of fantastical battle scenes (no, the bungie-jumping crane troops aren't realistic or practical, but they're still pretty damned cool – leaping off the top of the wall to spear the monsters, only to be immediately hauled back up before they get town apart (or hit the ground). And that it's an all-women legion is a nice added touch. It's really no harder of a pill to swallow visually than an Chinese-flavored version of the Battle of the Hornberg (Helm's Deep for the non-Tolkien fans), because really, the elven armor is about the same level of practical. There's no surprise that Peter Jackson's WETA workshop was behind Great Wall's prop building.
The dialog isn't the most polished and has issues, the effects range from decent to really good, and the action moves at a pretty hopping pace. Damon doesn't come off as an entire know-it-all to save the army – he does contribute some ideas, but the leader of the Crane Troop Lin Mae (played by Jing Tian) does just as much in terms of bravery and ideas to help turn the tide.
If you're looking for serious character depth and complex storytelling, this might not be the film for you. However for an added benefit, one of the writers was Max Brooks, author of World War Z. One can tell his hand in the military tactics aspects of Great Wall from a few miles off. Wall probably has one of the most intelligent forces of enemy monsters ever to have been put on screen. Rather than typical zombie or orc attacks that just barrel into anything in front of them, here the monsters have coordinated attacks and adjust their tactics based on situational changes. In the midst of a popcorn military fantasy, that was a really keen plus all by itself.
In the end, a really pleasant surprise. Not great, but a whole lot of fun. It's at least definitely better than last year's Jason Bourne.