No, this isn’t a movie about Trump’s weird Mexico idea, it’s bout… well…? Suffice to say, there are several different genres flying around this movie set around the year 1200. Historical drama, sci-fi/fantasy, epic war picture, silly SyFy exploitation movie-of-the-week; all you gotta do is pick one and you’d probably be right.
Okay, so let’s begin with a couple of Western mercenaries roaming around China in search of the elusive and mysterious “black powder” (gunpowder) when they run into the Great Wall after being chased by some marauders. But these two guys are special as they killed a Tao Tei, a huge reptilian/dog/velociraptor thingy from another planet. William (Matt Damon), from all over Europe and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), from Spain are invited inside the hallowed and impenetrable walls by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), the leader of the ‘Nameless Ones’, thousands of soldiers who protect the 5500 mile wall.
And what do they fear? Those hundreds of thousands of Tao Tei who attack every 60 years and get their psychic orders from their leader, the Queen Tao Tei. The more she feeds, the more she makes them pesky critters that’ll soon overrun the whole country! Yikes! Meanwhile, an attack on the wall proves to the Nameless Ones that the Westerners are worth their soy sauce, as they take out several of the creatures. Most impressed is Commander Lin (the adorable Jing Tian), leader of the Crane Troop. Not only does she speak English (convenient), but she’s impressed by William’s prowess with the bow which, to put it mildly, is nothing short of miraculous.
But she’s unaware of William and Tovar’s secret plan: hook up with the other resident Westerner there, Sir Ballard (Willem DaFoe), steal some black power and maps, and then leave in the night to make money in Europe. However, it looks like the chunk of magnet that William carries may have a calming effect on the creatures and a crazy idea is hatched about capturing one to experiment on. In a dazzling display of heroism (or stupidity. . . you decide), William manages to hook a Tao Tei and finds that his magnet actually works in subduing the thing! Suddenly, he sees a glimmer of hope and the idea of leaving these people seems like a lame thing to do.
Unfortunately, Tovar and Ballard think otherwise and take off with the goodies, leaving William behind to face the wrath of General Lin (she got a promotion, btw). However, getting mad at William will have to wait as the creatures (smarter than they look) have altered their course and are headed for the heavily populated Bianliang Capital City. Uh-oh! Using crude homemade air balloons loaded with black powder bombs, they fly towards the city in a desperate hope to kill the queen, which they think will immobilize all her troops. Luckily, Lin has super-bowman William by her side (he must’ve studied with the Avenger’s Hawkeye) and his never-miss shots.
Yeah, it’s as dumb as it sounds with a clichéd riddled and silly script by Carlo Bernard, Tony Gilroy, and Doug Miro. Plot holes abound as you giggle when thousands of Tao Tei attack and die, then miraculously disappear in the next shot! Plus, the Nameless Ones have ALL this black powder and don’t use it until the end? WTH?! Now don’t get me wrong, the director is no slouch here and really does a great job. Zhang Yimou has done some incredible work with Raise The Red Lantern, House Of Flying Daggers, and the amazing Hero. So, the artistic look and feel is excellent, as well as the fantastic set & production values. Plus, you have Yimou’s great camerawork and use of hundreds of real extras, not CGI.
Then you have the Chinese actors who, despite the ridiculousness of the story, stand their ground and act the hell out of this movie like it was a serious film. Tian, a China favorite, is wonderful and will be seen again in the upcoming Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim 2: Uprising. Andy Lau as war strategist Wang is terrific, while Damon just collects a paycheck here. Pascal and DaFoe fair a little better with their characters.