It would be easy for any of us to get caught up in the weirdness of the logline for The Great Wall, which is basically “Matt Damon fights monsters in historical China for some reason.” And ultimately, the film never reaches the insane heights of last year’s Gods of Egypt by Alex Proyas. It’s decently entertaining, but there’s also a lot going on beneath the surface.
The film is set in some ambiguous time (I did some Googling, and based on actual history the characters reference, the film contradicts itself frequently), but it opens with William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) trying to make their way to China to bring legendary black powder back to the West. They dispatch a mysterious creature, and proof of its existence saves them from being immediately executed when they reach the Great Wall.
At the Wall, they discover that there is a massive Chinese Army garrisoned there, and different roles within that army perform different functions. Red dudes are archers, purple dudes are ground troops, and dudettes in blue who bungee dive off the side of the Wall with giant spears. All of this stuff is really fun and cool, and the Wall also contains numerous war gadgets, like trebuchets, giant blades, and harpoons. All of this exists to try and repel a siege by creatures that look like the monster that chased Rick Moranis to the Tavern on the Green in Ghostbusters.*
William, a mercenary English speaker of variable accent, struggles to decide whether or not to help the Chinese army, mostly based on his attraction to Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and her luminescent blue armor. Meanwhile Pero just wants to get home with the powder, plotting with another Westerner, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), to escape with the hot merchandise.
On the face of it, The Great Wall would seem to be a White Savior Movie along the lines of Blood Diamond, Dances With Wolves, and The Last Samurai. Sure, William is the main character, but this movie mostly avoids these tropes, though he is an amazing archer and sets in motion the discovery that allows the Chinese a chance at victory. Rather, it almost inverts the trope entirely, to the point where the film sort of feels like propaganda for China.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but I will do my best while recognizing that I am not even remotely an expert on Chinese history. It is important to note that this is essentially a Chinese film, financed by a Chinese studio. But all of the writers are Westerners (Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy), and the story is also by Americans, including Edward Zwick, director of Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai. But maybe as a show of learning, the film is helmed by Chinese director Zhang Yimou (The Flowers of War, House of Flying Daggers, Hero).
The Westerners are constantly impressed by China’s advanced technology, which was more advanced at the time this takes place (William mentions fighting with the Danes in England). But William’s character arc— which is ridiculously thin— is all about giving up his individualistic ways and fight for a whole people, putting them before himself. And it’s not like American’s don’t make films about heroic altruism, but Lin’s criticism of William feels more cultural than personal. Or maybe I’m reading too much into what is mostly a silly film.
Thanks to Damon and Pedro Pascal’s charms, the film never gets boring, even when it narratively grinds to a halt. But when Zhang Yimou is going for spectacle, the film shines. While not the most impressive computer effects, the director does his best to effectively emulate Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings shooting style for the battle scenes. And when the film is showing action, it is very effective and engaging. However, many of the interiors feel more akin to Xena: Warrior Princess than a cinematic epic, with a lot of television-like cuts and blocking.
Though it often feels like it is going through the motions of being a fantasy epic rather than just being a fantasy epic, The Great Wall is closer to an entertaining film that falls short rather than an outright failure.
The Great Wall opens in Philly theaters today.
*A Terror Dog, aka the Keymaster aka Vinz Clortho
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.