Almost from its inception, there weren't many who wanted Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall to succeed.
Not because there was an intense dislike for the Chinese auteur, whose previous efforts, including 2002 Jet Li actioner Hero and 2004's House of Flying Daggers were well-received by American audiences, but rather because the film's announced star, wasn't Chinese.
At the time Matt Damon was announced as the lead for this Chinese-produced, English-speaking film, daggers came out as it was believed that The Great Wall would be yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing, providing a white savior as a lead when a Chinese lead would do. Of course the realities behind that speak to the contrary, and to be honest, always have.
Once the first trailer came out, we learned that The Great Wall wasn't necessarily a historical depiction of the more than 13,000-mile landmark, but rather a monster movie. Unfortunately, even though on one hand, the fantasy setting within historical terms was a novel concept, the ultimate execution ends up being fairly lackluster. something that no white or Chinese savior could indeed save.
Damon stars as William Garin, a mercenary who, with his rapidly dwindling band of mercenaries, are on a search for the mythical black powder that is believed to be the thing that will shift the balance of power in the western world. When the film starts, Garin and his band are already on the run from Khitan bandits, so we don't really have an opportunity to get to know anyone in the group as they are killed off or eaten by the dragon-like creatures known as the Taotie, named after ornate design motifs found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasty.
These sorts of details are what make The Great Wall a frustrating experience altogether, because in the very well-meaning desire to fold in a significant amount of Chinese culture to what is basically a standard monster fable, very little is done to expound on all these concepts, largely because the script, written by a trio of Americans, is devoid of anything resembling a real plot.
The goal here is to introduce the monster threat, get Damon and his partner-in-crime Pero (a thankless performance by Pedro Pascal) to the Great Wall itself and the clutches of the Nameless Order, a group of soldiers who are all wonderfully color-coded and seem to have cool and death-defying tasks, but outside of their Power Ranger-like design and regiment names, like Bear Troop, Crane Troop and Eagle Troop, we have no idea how the Nameless Order operates, or what their purpose is, outside of fighting the Taotie, who (because the exposition tells us), appears every 60 years or so to fight.
Of the bright spots of The Great Wall, the performance of Jing Tian as Commander (Later General) Lin Mae of the Crane Troop, stands out. Even though it's Damon's face splashed over every piece of marketing, Tian is the true lead of the film, and her role is surprisingly feminist in nature, something that elevates the film, as it is clear we are following Lin Mae's journey more than any one else's, however making that focus a bit clearer would have only been a positive. That said, what we get from Lin Mae is certainly fertile ground for more adventures where she doesn't need to be buttressed by a male actor, much less an English-speaking one.
Completely wasted in the film is Willem Dafoe as Sir Ballard, an enigmatic character whose motivation strangely changes, and only serves to make him totally unnecessary to the main plot, as his only purpose seems to be to interact with William and Pero to help them get away with all the black powder they can carry, even though he could've done it on his own long before they ever arrived.
Despite everything wrong with the film's shoddy script and archaic CGI and creature design, it's hard to deny what The Great Wall represents for the future of cinema. History will remember this as the first real incursion by China into the American market, and while this initial attempt is flawed, China will not be stopped, and their skill and product will get better and better to the point where their projected takeover (in terms of size) of the industry will bring with it films we actually want to see and enjoy.
What Chinese producers will have to remember and understand is that American audiences already have a taste for their better products, so if they can fight the notion that they have to dumb down their artistic vision to cater to Joe Sixpack (which admittedly they still might to a point), without having to stunt cast Anglo actors, they can find the sort of success that will make mediocre films like The Great Wall a footnote towards something even better in the future.