From a young age, we’re told not to judge a book by its cover. After all, it may end up being the best story we’ve ever read. Although sometimes from the moment that you hear the synopsis of a movie, you just know that it’s not going to be a real winner. But as a critic, you have to give some things the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes you’re proven wrong and you get a fairly enjoyable film. And then other times you get ‘The Great Wall’ and you get literally everything that you expected in the worst way.
Set during the time of the Song Dynasty, the first English-language film from legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou follows a European mercenary named William (played by Matt Damon) as he and his partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal) search for a powerful weapon known as black powder. But when they encounter an unknown monster and an enormous wall to protect the world from others like it, the warriors join forces with the secret division of the Imperial army known as the Nameless Order to take out the horde of invading beasts from overrunning the capital city and taking out the emperor.
Let’s be completely honest here: That last paragraph was a nice way of saying, “Matt Damon swoops in and saves China.” In fact, that’s literally the case during the final battle when saving the day includes swinging in on a rope. And though everyone involved in the production adamantly denied any claims of whitewashing the main character in favor of an actor with a bigger box office draw since the lead was always meant to be a European, the white savior narrative was still out there in full force. I mean, not only did Damon save all the Asians, he had to save his compatriot from Spain (who was charming and charismatic, but basically only there for one matador gag) as well. The Nameless Order was filled with capable fighters (namely Jing Tian’s Commander Lin of the Crane Corps) that could also be wicked smart enough to adapt the motto of “Nail them while they’re vulnerable” while fighting the Taotie. Nope, the white guy had to be a big part in the dispatching of the plight yet again and that’s something that we definitely do not need more of in this day and age.
But if you’re thinking that this review is dwelling on the “political” aspects of ‘The Great Wall’ too much, then let’s take a look at the script. This film is basically what happens when Michael Bay’s signature mindless action and explosions are brought to ancient China. Since so much was put into the battle and the monsters, the story suffered by being very predictable and entirely too convenient. Without saying too much in order to avoid spoilers, it’s a bit farfetched that one shot (along with some interference from a small magnet) could solve an entire problem.
The writers also attempted to be somewhat progressive when it came to their female characters, but it all felt a little half-assed. None of the women were there to be a love interest for the main character because the Crane Corps were among the elite of this secret army. Their commander might have been the mightiest warrior that they had in their ranks, yet when it came time to deal the final blow of the battle, Commander Lin needed William’s help to end it all after he couldn’t get it done properly. Just like the notion that the movie as a whole isn’t inherently racist just because it has a white protagonist, the few glimmers of progressiveness weren’t enough to really establish the women as equals (or at least equal to Matt Damon).
To be fair, the filmmaker known for his work on ‘Hero’, ’House of Flying Daggers’, and the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games was able to let his talent shine through here and there amidst all the annoying bits of the movie. Zhang’s amazing use of color and wonderful panoramic shots painted a very pretty picture. And yes, I said that action was mindless, but the director was able to make a few of those moments look really cool. It’s also important to shout out the costume designers, Weta Workshop, Industrial Light and Magic for their work on the intricate period costumes, sleek weaponry, practical effects, and monster designs. Zhang wouldn’t have had nearly as many cool things to shoot were it not for those elements of the production. However, the factor the matter is that the majority of that was overshadowed by the numerous factors previously mentioned in this review.
At the end of the day, little kids that are looking for epic fights between monsters and essentially a brightly colored army of Power Rangers will be the most entertained by ‘The Great Wall’. Hell, adults who want to put on a movie that doesn’t require a lot of thought in the background while they do other stuff will probably enjoy it too. But there are honestly so many other better films out there that could suit both of those purposes that don’t perpetuate the notion that a white person needs to be front and center to make Asians and Asian stories relevant on the big screen. There are too many of those out there as it is, so we don’t need another one. But people of color being the heroes of their own stories with Hollywood backing like this? Yeah, I like them apples. Let’s get more of those.
‘The Great Wall’ starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Mackenzie Foy, and Andy Lau hits theaters on February 17, 2017.