Give The Great Wall credit for at least one thing: It gets straight to the point.
Within the first 20 minutes, we’re along the Great Wall of China with Matt Damon and a dazzlingly colorful Chinese army, fighting thousands of giant lizard monster things called Tao Tei. It’s really kind of refreshing not to have to go through an hour of buildup before we get to the fighting like we do with so many adventure movies these days. Let’s just get to it.
But what’s Matt Damon doing in medieval China, you ask? Well, he’s a European smuggler who’s come to steal gunpowder to take back home to sell at a massive profit, only within the first few minutes he gets captured by the army fighting the Tao Tei. Luckily, he shows impressive enough battle skills that he’s allowed to fight alongside the army, despite his initial nefarious intent. It’s a convenient way to get a familiar face in the movie for Western audiences, but it also allows for plenty of exposition—Damon doesn’t know anything more about these giant lizards than we do, so we’re able to learn along with him as the Chinese generals explain their history and why, exactly, the Tao Tei are attacking here and now.
And, ultimately, there’s not a lot more to it. The movie is visually arresting, which isn’t surprising given it’s directed by Zhang Yimou, who made the even more stunning Jet Li vehicle Hero and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers, and was responsible for the extraordinary opening ceremonies to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It’s these visuals that carry most of the movie.
The story itself is negligible and yeah, we’ve seen this movie countless times before. But so what? The Great Wall looks great, it’s not boring, it doesn’t waste our time, and it doesn’t pretend to be any more high-minded than it is. And sometimes, that’s enough.