Maybe this'll teach us not to judge a movie by its marketing campaign. Thanks to posters and trailers focused solely on its American star, Matt Damon, Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall has been pilloried as an example of a Chinese myth being given the Hollywood white-savior treatment. The movie turns out to be the opposite: the tale of a gweilo discovering the awesome power and superiority of a well-oiled Chinese fighting force and finding a place for himself amid this sea of warriors as they do battle against an army of lizard-demons from the depths of hell.
The simplicity of the story is genuinely surprising. Irish mercenary William (Damon) and his Spanish companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) seek refuge with an army -- the Nameless Order -- camped inside the gates of the Great Wall of China. There, they immediately find themselves in the midst of a battle against these strange creatures, called Taotie, which are like giant, man-eating, hyper-intelligent iguanas that travel in enormous, well-organized packs. Taken in by Commander Lin (Tian Jing), who leads the Order's all-female Crane Corps, they join in the fight, even while they conspire to find a way to get the gunpowder and smuggle it out.
The story has a couple more moves after that, but that's basically it. Most of the film is spent on lavish, brain-melting depictions of combat and on the intricate munitions and battle configurations the Order mounts against the Taotie. It may be a studio release, but the constant sense of invention, the go-for-broke intricacy of its battle scenes, feels very much of a piece with Chinese action fantasy flicks.