That long wall they’ve got over there in China has inspired many stories, some true and some fictional. “This,” says the title card at the beginning of “The Great Wall,” “is one of the legends.” The fantastical nature of Zhang Yimou’s first English-language film would have been clear as soon as the hordes of reptilian monsters appeared anyway, but it’s good to know up front that “The Great Wall” (despite its educational-sounding title) is more concerned with large-scale entertainment than with historical accuracy. It gives us license to relax and enjoy the extravaganza.
Set around 1000 A.D., “The Great Wall” is about two European mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), who are searching for the “black powder” that China is rumored to have invented, when they’re attacked by a strange creature, barely escaping with their lives. They’re subsequently captured by an elite, resourceful military unit called the Nameless Order, commanded by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and tasked with defending the Wall. Shao and his advisers want to know how William was able to hurt the monster so easily, and why there were monsters at all: they weren’t expecting them for several days yet. It turns out these ferocious green rhino-sized devils — ravenous, razor-toothed beasts called tao tei — have been a secret plague on China for centuries, reemerging every 60 years to try and overtake the Wall and enter the capital. William may have unwittingly found a way to defeat them. Magnets are involved!
Do not think for a moment, however, that this is a story about Westerners showing up somewhere to teach the poor benighted locals how to solve their own problems. For one thing, Tovar isn’t interested in helping, only in finding the gunpowder and fleeing. (William is more heroic than that.) But more to the point, the Nameless Order is amazingly well prepared and disciplined, all of its members trained since childhood in the Order’s highly advanced (for 1000 A.D.) methods of defense. When swarms of screeching tao tei, guided telepathically by their queen, besiege the Wall, trebuchets affixed to the Wall itself launch fireballs to create a perimeter while platoons of archers shoot arrows at the tao tei that make it through. For close combat, there’s the crane corps, an all-female army whose members essentially bungee-jump from the Wall with a spear in each hand, stabbing monsters on the ground for a second or two before being yanked back up. These battle sequences are exhilarating, shot on a grand digital scale similar to “Lord of the Rings,” with Zhang (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) happily in his wheelhouse. In one breathless scene, a thick fog prevents the people on the Wall from seeing the tao tei — whose intelligence is evolving — on the ground below.
The leader of the crane corps, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), speaks English, having been taught by a European named Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who came here 25 years ago looking for gunpowder and never left. Lin is thus able to serve as translator for William, whose archery skills and mysterious accent are both borderline supernatural. (The film addresses the language barrier more realistically than it addresses anything else, letting the Chinese people speak subtitled Mandarin when appropriate rather than having everyone be magically fluent in English.) Lin and her fellow cranes kick all manner of butt, as do the other squads, as does William. When they emerge victorious, it’s because they have cooperated with mutual respect.
A number of superfluous, half-formed ideas bubble up in the plot, and Willem Dafoe’s shadow-dwelling character doesn’t amount to anything. There’s some schmaltz, too, in the form of a scared young soldier whom William takes under his wing. These may be the consequences of the script being the work of six different men: three are credited for the story, three more for the screenplay. Details about the monsters’ origins and nature are dorky-cool, but there’s nothing in the dialogue worth remembering, nor are the characters drawn with any particular skill. Zhang is all about the spectacle — fearsome beasts, massive color-coordinated armies, experimental hot-air balloons, and, yes, some gunpowder. He delivers this with gusto, unconcerned with whether the finer points of the narrative make sense. It’s Matt Damon and Jing Tian (you don’t know her yet but you will) fighting rhino-velociraptors. What else do you want?
B (1 hr., 43 min.; )