If you’ve already written The Great Wall off as 1) a horrible premise for a film and 2) another in a long line of embarrassing White Savior movies, you’re not entirely wrong.
If you’ve already written The Great Wall off as 1) a horrible premise for a film and 2) another in a long line of embarrassing White Savior movies, you’re not entirely wrong. Judging from the poster, we’re made to believe evil monsters are being kept at bay by the Great Wall of China and only Matt Damon: Famous Caucasian can save the day. But this is one of those cases where the marketing is doing a disservice to a movie that’s surprisingly fun, if remarkably slight. The film does prominently feature Jason Bourne himself, but this isn’t a Last Samurai situation where a recognizable movie star steals the thunder from a cast of color as the messianic hero.
Damon plays William, a soldier of fortune who comes to China in 12th century in pursuit of “black powder” he’s been told can turn air into fire. His party has been picked apart by bandits and poor conditions, leaving just William and the closest thing he’s got to a friend in Tovar (Pedro Pascal). William and Tovar survive an encounter with a mysterious creature before seeking refuge with a Chinese military group called the Nameless Order. These men and women guard the Great Wall from the Taotie, the horrifying hive monsters William and Tovar fought who attack every 60 years.
Because they prove useful in the fight and can’t be allowed to leave or reveal the Order’s secrets, William and Tovar are held in the barracks, where they meet Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another mercenary who came East in search of the mythical gunpowder. Ballard’s been with them for 25 years, biding his time to escape with as much of the Order’s advanced weaponry as possible so he can sell it to the highest bidder and spend the rest of his life getting his dick sucked in brothels and drinking mead. Or whatever. This is the big score William and Tovar have been seeking, but of course, William grows fond of Commander Lin (Jing Tian), the gorgeous and tenacious woman he builds a curious kinship with. William must choose between consummating a life of thievery and money driven murder or a new start fighting for something real.
This isn’t a particularly subtle film, but the central conflict works because Damon, despite an initially questionable accent, portrays the inner turmoil with a subtlety that pairs well with the otherwise insane unreality on screen. “Traveling rogue helps Chinese military fight monsters” sounds like an Uwe Boll movie, but this is directed by Zhang Yimou. The man who made Raise the Red Lantern has made his English language debut here and brought his keen eye for beautiful imagery to the special effects laden blockbuster with shocking results. There are moments of lyrical splendor here and the action itself is very clearly staged and shot. The first major set piece, which arrives very early, feels like a more compact version of what Peter Jackson did with the best LOTR battle scenes, only way easier to follow visually.
The only real criticism that can be lobbied at the spectacle is how purposefully artificial everything looks. Between the strange creature animation and the bipolar color palette, The Great Wall feels like a video game designed by a Renaissance painter. There are multiple shots of Tian’s Commander Lin where she seems like test footage from the next “Final Fantasy” more than a living, breathing person. In some ways, the digital seams visible throughout the film suit the quasi-mythical tone. Yimou and his army of writers (among them Rogue One script doctor Tony Gilroy) make some broad strokes about China’s history in the world building, but the uncanny valley approach to epic storytelling keeps it from coming off too self-serious. This, of course, is the right approach for a movie about the Great Wall of China being designed to keep literal monsters out who can only be stopped with magnets.
As for the accusations of whitewashing, this really isn’t the kind of film you might be expecting. This is a production situation where Yimou was allowed to make a hugely budgeted action picture with a predominantly Chinese cast that just happens to have a botched heist thriller happening alongside it. William’s arc is front and center, but it feels like a complimentary narrative to Commander Lin’s story. It helps that William and Tovar’s contentious friendship is genuinely entertaining and William’s inner struggle isn’t labored over. It’s a simple, quickly paced transformation that scans as believable because you’re not forced to spend too much time dwelling on it.
The Great Wall doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but it does pass the Mako Mori Test, mirroring as it does another multicultural monster hunting movie. Like in Pacific Rim, William doesn’t single handedly save the day and he doesn’t wind up kissing the girl. He just finds some inner peace and a sense of unity. Hokey, sure, but far from offensive.