The advertising for The Great Wall made it looks like another white savior story. Matt Damon would play the Chosen One of Anglo-Saxon descent who would come to savage China and save the hapless Chinese people from the monsters. After seeing Zhang Yimou’s period action film, I’m happy to report that’s not the case. If anything, it’s China who comes out ahead in terms of glory and honor. And yet, despite the interesting subtext regarding our current geopolitical power dynamic, The Great Wall largely lacks the flair and intimacy of Yimou’s previous action films, and instead plays as a fairly rote blockbuster designed to appeal to everyone and thus appealing to no one.
William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are soldiers from Europe who have come to China seeking the fabled “black powder”, an ingredient in a super weapon that could make them rich. However, they are captured by Chinese soldiers working for “The Nameless Order” and taken to the Great Wall. There, they discover that China is under attack by meteor monsters called the Tao Tei. After proving themselves in battle, William and Tovar gain the trust of Commander Lin (Jing Tian), but while Tovar still seeks to gain the black powder, William is intrigued by Lin’s exaltations of honor and sacrifice over personal gain.
Yes, William is special in that he’s really good with a bow, but the film goes out of its way to make sure you know that Lin is the true hero of the story and that William becomes a better man by following her example. William and Tovar are motivated by greed and self-interest while Lin shows that fighting for others is what’s truly important in life. Additionally, she’s a worthy fighter in her own right, and ultimately William’s purpose in the story isn’t to save the day, but to learn from Lin.
While some may decry this as Chinese propaganda, it’s no more brazen than the American President leading the world in a rallying cry against aliens in Independence Day. China footed the bill for The Great Wall, and although American audiences may not be used to another country getting to lead the way, they may want to get on board. China isn’t going anywhere, they play a huge role in international box office, and studios are realizing that Chinese audiences want to see Chinese people play the heroes. Matt Damon may be the lead on the posters, but China is the true star of The Great Wall.
So it’s a shame that the overall film is so bland and forgettable. For all of the lavish production and costume design, the movie pales in comparison to Yimou’s past period actioners like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Rather than the smooth, confident cinematography that lets the action shine, Yimou seems at a loss with what to do when crowding his movie with CGI monsters and actors like Damon and Pescal, who are charming and charismatic, but lack the martial arts skills of someone like Jet Li or Andy Lau.
That being said, Damon makes a bizarre choice with a weird accent that seems completely removed from place and time. On the one hand, I appreciate he didn’t go straight British for a period accent, but at the same time, you’re always aware that Damon is straining for some odd mixture of Scottish and Irish, and it’s incredibly distracting. It also doesn’t help that he has far more chemistry with Pascal than with Tian, and while The Great Wall didn’t really work for me, I wouldn’t object to seeing Damon and Pascal co-star in more movies together.
The Great Wall provides an interesting snapshot at our current geopolitical landscape where China’s power is increasing, and we can see that reflected in our entertainment. That being said, that’s background to a fairly uninteresting action movie where you don’t really care that much about the characters, the threat lacks personality, and the expense of the production far exceeds the quality of the script. At best, The Great Wall provides an interesting look at what could be the future of international cinema, but it doesn’t make much of a stand on its own.