“The Great Wall” is not the story of Donald Trump’s relations with Mexico. It’s a $150 million historical epic from Chinese director Zhang Yimou that garnered a lot of criticism for the controversial casting of Matt Damon in a major role.
Detractors called the choice an example of a “white saviour” from the West appropriating Chinese culture and stepping in to save the day. Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat” voiced her disapproval, accusing the film of “perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” adding, “our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”
Zhang fought back. “Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor.”
“As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics,” he said in a statement, “I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision.”
More on that later, but having seen the film, a more blatant criticism would be the generic, formulaic filmmaking.
On the run, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured at a Great Wall outpost by a band of Chinese soldiers called the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). The interlopers are due to be disposed of until they offer up a claw Garin separated from a mysterious beast days before.
Turns out, the creature is a Tao Tie, a nasty breed of beast that attacks the Imperial Court every sixty years. The walleyed creatures look like a smooth green werewolf- Komodo Dragon hybrid and are very difficult to kill. When the Tao Tie attack days earlier than expected Tovar and Garin’s bravery earn them privileged spots in the battalion—“We’re honoured to be honoured,” says Garin.—but the pair are secretly only interested in the local “black powder.” “It turns the air into fire!” they gasp. If they can smuggle the gunpowder out of the battalion it will make them rich men in the West.
It’s a great plan until Garin opts to leave his mercenary ways behind join forces with General Lin (Jing Tian), the only female English-speaking commander at the outpost. Her bravery turns his head, reminding him of why he became a soldier in the first place. “Let me fight with you,” he says. “If this is where you choose to die, good luck to you,” scoffs Tovar. If the Tao Tie breach the wall, we’re told several times, nothing can stop them.
“The Great Wall” uses every epic monster film trick in the book. Cameras sweep and swirl, flames lick the screen, there’s slow-mo galore and loads of Zhang’s unique wuxia style action but despite the grandeur and the lushness of the cinematography and costume details it is all rather dull. It’s “Lord of the Rings” without the engaging fantasy and “Game of Thrones” sans the lusty carnality that keeps people watching between dragon conquest scenes.
There is some humour between the battle scenes. Garin and Tovar are awfully quippy for a pair of Song dynasty soldiers. “I’m the one saving you,” Tovar jokes on the battlefield, “so I can kill you myself.” It’s “Hope and Crosby on the Road to the Imperial Court!”
As for Garin as the Saviour from the West, I have to agree with Wu. There are several heroes in this movie but Garin eats up the most screen time and in the end is instrumental in (SPOILER ALERT) keeping the nasty beasties from having their way with the Emperor. Damon is an agreeable actor, although here he dons a flat and ever-changing accent that simply amplifies how completely out of place he seems in ancient China.
“The Great Wall” feels more like an exercise in marketing than it does a movie. The size and spectacle of it appear geared to appeal to an audience used to avenging superheroes, while the casting of a white American star at the heart of another culture’s tale looks to be a blatant attempt at creating a tentpole film for a world audience. What they forgot about was including compelling characters and story.