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The Great Wall

February 17, 2017
The Great Wall

Long before The Great Wall came close to release, plenty of ink was spilled in outrage over casting the white Matt Damon in a fantasy action flick about the Great Wall of China holding back an army of literal monsters. That point is only partly helped by observing that this is a Chinese-financed production directed by Zhang Yimou, and the business case is that Chinese audiences won’t show up these days without a big-name American (read, “white or Dwayne Johnson”) star as an anchor. It’s kinda racist, but it’s Chinese racism, but they imported it from us in the first place.

It’s all kind of a mess on paper, but when you look at the movie itself they actually came up with a good excuse for it. Damon’s character may resemble a “white savior” enough to get American audiences to the multiplex, but in practice he’s less an example of that trope than a skilled barbarian who learns the superior (i.e. Chinese) way. The story might be a mess with six named western writers, but it has the fingerprints of the Chinese State Media all over it. The last time I saw a genre pic set up as such a naked allegory of east-Asian communism was, well, Pulgasari.

Specifically, Damon plays William Garin, a western mercenary traveling to China in search of black powder weapons that would give him a decisive edge in his European campaigns. He and his Spaniard companion, Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are on the run from Mongolian tribesmen when they run into some monstrous thing that William manages to defeat. Or, at least, de-foot. The next day, with the tribesmen back on their trail, they run into the Great Wall, and decide it’s better to surrender to the Chinese than surely die at the hands of the Mongols.

The wall, they learn from Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), was built to keep out the ravenous Tao Tie horde, lizard-like monsters that take their directions from a central queen. They attack every sixty years, getting stronger and smarter each time, and if they managed to capture the millions living in the Chinese capital they’d have the resources to spread over the entire world. So it’s not just China, but all of humanity that the wall is defending against greedy forces that exist only to consume and destroy (hint, hint).

And the Chinese armies are there to defend the wall with all the usual modes — legions of foot-soldiers in black armor, banks of archers in red, and of course the bungee-lancers in blue — backed up with flaming catapults and other secret tricks built into the wall itself. Of course the Chinese general (Zhang Hanyu) doesn’t want the westerners to leave and take their secret technology with him. The last European to come seeking black powder twenty-five years ago (Willem Dafoe) is even still here, though he quickly starts hatching escape plans with the two newcomers.

Of course, from the movie’s perspective, escape a very western thing to do. It puts the self first and betrays trust in one’s compatriots. Naturally, William comes to understand this and begins to work with the collective rather than for his own profit. He’s very skilled, yes, but he puts that skill to the service of the defense effort, and it’s easy to imagine success without him. The most decisive element he brings is almost an accident; the Chinese could have worked it out on their own if he hadn’t shown up.

Still, that idea is about a cùn deep. The real movie is in the action, which here is aggressively okay. The battle sequences have lots of moving pieces, as you might expect from the man who brought you the opening and closing ceremonies from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but the effect is less impressive with CGI armies than with real human dancers. And after the first couple they start to wear off. Thankfully the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome, but it easily could if it went on much longer.

It’s interesting to see what a studio system dominated by still nominally-Maoist state does with the tropes of the CGI blockbuster, but there’s just not very much else going on here. It’s pretty, which helps, but lacks the truly striking visionary style of, say, Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, another one that aimed at dumb-but-fun and landed a lot closer to that mark. Damon’s role isn’t as offensive as people feared, but that doesn’t make this one worth seeking out.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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