The Great Wall is directed by Zhang Yimou and stars Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal and Willem Defoe.
There’s a few things that have to be talked about with this movie, but let’s get to the meat of it straight away. This is an action movie set in ancient China and the film makes it clear from the get-go that this is based on a legend. That being the case, I settled in with my suspension of disbelief firmly in place and watched the movie like a legend, similar to how one would watch Hercules or Clash of the Titans. Brave heroes doing heroic things very heroically and reality be damned. On that count, there were some impressive setups, one-on-one fight scenes and battle sequences which I very much enjoyed watching.
The premise is that two European adventurers are the only survivors from an original band of 20 men who have traveled all the way from England through the Mongolian deserts to get to China, or at least to the Great Wall on the borderlands where they encounter a large Chinese army set to battle fiercesome creatures who apparently come around every 60 years to feast on the flesh of humans. I think that much is pretty clear from the trailers and commercials, so I won’t get into any other big spoilers, but the backstory of these creatures is kind of interesting even if the special effects creating them are not exactly top notch. I never had any doubt when these things were on screen that I was looking at CGI monsters and for me that is a bit of a deal breaker but I put that little bit aside and tried to enjoy it anyway.
The reason these guys have made this incredible journey is to get the magic black powder, i.e. gunpowder, from the Chinese and take it back to Europe to become rich. They are mercenaries, have sold their swords to half the dukes and barons in Europe and don’t have any loyalty to anyone but themselves. At least not until they get to the Great Wall, when Matt Damon starts having a crisis of morality.
If you watch my reviews, you know that I’m all about story and good writing. I have this strange idea that movies should make sense, character motivations and actions should be consistent and things should roll forward in such a way that you can see why X and Y and Z happened. I don’t need it all explained to me along the way. I’m perfectly happy to let the story play out in front of me and watch characters do things that maybe initially don’t make sense or seem off, so long as by the end of the thing, I can walk out getting it. Here, Matt Damon’s morality crisis is a key plot element yet there was no compelling reason for that conflict to happen. In fact, this is one of those movies where there are quite a few of those “What a minute…why is this happening?” moments and I figure the reason for that is because the writers worked out the end of the movie first and then proceeded to force-feed all the story elements and characters into a plot machine to make it all happen. When you are putting a story together like that, it doesn’t matter how stretched or twisted things have to get, so long as you are bringing everything forward to that conclusion. I don’t particularly like that kind of storytelling because it’s sloppy and it almost always comes out with massive plot holes, illogical twists and inconsistent characters that are setup to be one thing but then end up doing just the opposite.
This being a legendary action adventure where the good guys are banding together to fight monsters and save the world, I can imagine some people thinking I’m nit-picking on story but it’s not just me. This movie is a big budget epic that takes itself seriously. It’s not xXx or The Expendables, so I have to take it seriously in talking about it.
Plot and character criticisms aside, let’s also get to the elephant in the room about this movie, which is the “white guys saves the day” element. Now to be clear, this is not the same was what is being called “whitewashing” where a character who is originally not white is re-written to be played by a white actor. That’s not what’s going on in The Great Wall. Matt Damon and Pablo Pascal were meant to be strangers in a strange land from the very beginning. No, what I’m talking about here is the idea that if a white guy doesn’t appear on the scene, then somehow everyone is doomed.
There’s no question why Matt Damon is made out to be a key player in this movie. He’s immensely popular in Western cinema and rightly so. His movies are routinely well made, he’s a good actor and he’s a smart guy in real life who tries to use his star power for positive change. I’ve never had any reason not to like him or his body of work. The gamble with this movie is to try to get Eastern audiences to like him just as much, but I don’t think that they are going to succeed.
This movie represents the largest co-production ever between Hollywood and Chinese production houses with a budget of $150 million. On the Western side, you have not only A-lister Matt Damon but also Willem Defoe and Pablo Pascal from Game of Thrones. These are not light weights. On the Eastern side, there are Chinese A-listers Andy Lau, Lu Han, Lin Gengxin and Jing Tian. Director Zhang Yimou is an icon in China and was nominated for an Oscar for the Jet Li martial arts epic Hero in 2002, but he has never directed an English language film before. The last time something like this was done on a big budget scale was The Forbidden Kingdom in 2008, which starred Jackie Chan, Jet Le and young American actor Michael Angarno as a modern-day teen who found himself totally out of his element in ancient China. And comparing these two movies is a great way to show how The Great Wall got it wrong.
In The Forbidden Kingdom, you had a mix of East and West but at no point was there ever the idea that the Chinese characters were inferior, subordinate or underlings to the American kid. Like The Great Wall, it was a great adventure story based on Chinese legends and myths and it had top-rate martial arts and battle sequences. I mean, how can you go wrong when you put Jet Li and Jackie Chan on screen together and even have them fight? I paid good money to see that and it was worth every cent. However, unlike The Great Wall and most important of all, The Forbidden Kingdom showed respect for the Chinese culture and characters. The positioning of the Western character was certainly different in that he was a bullied teen who needed help, not a bad-ass mercenary who could accurately shoot three arrows in the space of two seconds to hang a bowl from a stone pillar. However, the key word here is respect.
Now don’t get me wrong. In The Great Wall, the Chinese are not bumbling around or Keystone Cops. They have built this immense wall, filled it with all kinds of nasty surprises and their army is made up of different units including these acrobatic women who leap off the wall with spears bungie-cord style to take out the monsters. It’s visually impressive even if strategically insane. Yet when these two white guys show up, the Chinese can’t seem to defer to them enough. We’re expected to believe that out of an entire army of Chinese, no one there is as experienced, bad ass or interesting as Matt Damon? I just couldn’t go there. There should have been two or even three Chinese characters on equal footing with Damon. Instead, for all their efforts and experience and martial arts mastery, the Chinese were made out to look like fools until the Westerners arrive to save the day.
Now believe it or not, I actually went in to this movie determined to not get into the politics of this, but the movie itself wouldn’t let me. Had no one ever said anything about this issue before, I would still be talking about this in my review here. The pro-white prejudice stood out that much. I was surprised and, by the end, very disappointed.
So where does all this leave us? I am giving The Great Wall a rating of Meh. The direction and cinematography is great, the battle scenes are visually arresting and the production design is top notch, but it’s all for naught in the face of an overtly prejudiced and ultimately unsatisfactory experience.
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