The opening titles of “The Great Wall” pose the question of why the boundary was built across 5,500 miles of China all those years ago. Good question.
Historians don’t agree on the answer. Was it built to prevent marauding armies, or to keep out immigrants? Was it used as a trading route?
Or could it just possibly have been a defense against giant reptiles with freaky side-eyes and hundreds of teeth, which attack the human population every 60 years?
Oh, sure. That last one sounds far-fetched. But can you prove it didn’t happen? Isn’t a screenwriter’s idea just as truthy as pesky facts?
In any case, “The Great Wall” goes with the giant reptile idea. As coincidence would have it, our story begins exactly at the 60-year mark, so the creatures are attacking an army assembled at the Great Wall.
More bad timing: Two European mercenaries, an Irishman named William (Matt Damon) and a Spaniard called Tovar (Pedro Pascal, a “Narcos” regular), have just arrived on the scene. They’ve come to China to locate gunpowder, a prized commodity that could make them rich back home.
First they must deal with the monsters. The idea of the film is that while Tovar remains a me-first scoundrel (no wonder Pascal gives the film’s most enjoyable performance), William is stirred to become a better person by the example of the brave, pretty military commander (Tian Jing, a star in China but a dull heroine here).
The director is Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most prominent filmmakers (“House of Flying Daggers”). For someone whose career began with breathtaking art movies like “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang appears to have completely embraced the maximalist style of the epic.
“The Great Wall” is the most expensive movie shot entirely in China, and is another sign of the way the huge Chinese market continues to affect Hollywood.
The problem is that in trying to please international tastes, this movie doesn’t have much personality of its own. Everything’s generic, right down to Willem Dafoe’s wicked wanderer, who’s been trapped in China for 25 years.
Zhang manages a few visual set-pieces: a foggy morning monster-hunt, and a climactic fight bathed in candy-colored light from stained-glass windows. But something’s missing — a second act, maybe, as the picture seems too short to attain epic status.
The biggest twist is Matt Damon’s accent, which changes his delivery so much he seems like an entirely different actor. Depending on how “The Great Wall” does at the box office, that could be a good thing for him.
“The Great Wall” (2 stars)
Matt Damon plays a European mercenary who drops by the Great Wall of China just as an army is being attacked by giant reptiles. Zhang Yimou directed this computer-effects-heavy production, which rarely gets past its generic feel.
Rating: PG-13, for violence
Showing: Various area theaters