The story — noted upfront as a legend — takes place about a thousand years ago in China. We drop in on European mercenaries searching for a new weapons. The group is attacked by … something, and when the dust clears, only William (Matt Damon), Tovar (Pedro Pascal), a magnetic rock and a freaky clawed appendage are left. “I’ll take the hand with me … so somebody can tell me what I just killed,” muses William.
In short order, the pair reach the Great Wall, manned by tens of thousands of soldiers, and are promptly taken prisoner. But the claw turns out to be a life-saver: The wall is built to hold back monsters, and the mercenaries’ escape from said monsters earns them a spot on the front lines. The rest of the film is simply humans teaming up to defeat the beasties. Given the increasing length and narrative bloat of action films, there’s something to be said for a quickly paced 103-minute film with an uncomplicated premise. The (literally) quickly sketched origin story of the monsters is so silly it truly doesn’t matter: They’re here now and somebody has to deal with them.
Zhang, who began in arthouse fare (Raise the Red Lantern) before moving onto to action (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), melds a Chinese action spectacle with a Western buddy film and CGI monsters. It’s an awkward marriage at times — the gorgeous precision of the Chinese battalions (each costumed in color-coded gear, with sumptuous satin capes) is undercut by cheesy digital effects. More fun than the monsters — which resemble lizard-hyena hybrids — are the kicky array of weapons (screaming arrows, flaming stones) and fighting styles (warriors on bungee cords).
The film is visually resplendent. It’s shot amid “Western movie” scenery, with canyons and hills carved from red and gold sandstone. There is a thrilling scene set in the fog; another’s in a tower of stained glass. And mid-film, an arresting funeral for a fallen warrior is replete with drums, choral music, white robes and floating lanterns.
Also, I’m pleased to report that the boss of the story isn’t Damon’s character, but a woman, Commander Lin (Jing Tian). Similarly, the monsters are led by a queen, and the final showdown pits lady beast against lady warrior, though that hunk of magnetic rock is MVP of the anti-monster crusade. Again, the why of this pretty silly — just accept it and enjoy the show.