Despite the protests of our sitting president, sooner or later us Americans will become the serfs of Chinese overlords. The United States is in massive debt to China and relies upon them for a great deal of our imports. We can’t possibly pay them back, so it’s only a matter of time before they annex us. Hollywood provides a harbinger of things to come in the form of The Great Wall, one of the most obvious examples of the film industry’s slow handoff to our future masters.
The film, directed by the martial arts maximalist Zhang Yimou, stars mostly Chinese actors, including Andy Lau and Jing Tian. The one very odd concession the film makes to put American butts in seats is to cast American actors Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe in the leads. The film is a massively budgeted CGI action spectacle that is co-produced by Legendary and China Film Group, which alone explains this movie’s reason to exist: to make all the money possible and to cater to the widest audience possible. The smell of cash is in the air.
William (Damon) and Tolvar (Pascal) are mercenaries who have learned about the existence of an explosive black powder that is in the possession of the Chinese. En route to stealing this weapon they encounter a lizard monster-thing, which William slays and brings to the army who mans the great wall. They meet Commander Lin (Jing), who informs them that their army has defended the capital from these monsters (called “taotie”) for centuries but has never been able to defeat them. William has a chunk of magnetic rock with him, which apparently is the weakness of the taotie, so Lin agrees not to kill him in exchange for his sword. Meanwhile, Tolvar has engaged with Ballard (Dafoe), an English-speaking man who was captured 25 years earlier and has since educated Lin and Strategist Wang (Lau) to speak his language. The pair wants to abscond with the black powder and whatever other treasures they can find, but run up against William’s sense of honor and duty to the Chinese. Having lived a life of brutality, greed, and lies, William is torn between throwing in his lot with the Chinese or escaping to safety.
The producers clearly gave Zhang the order to put the money on the screen, which is precisely what he does with his battle scenes, the best parts of this otherwise bone-headed action flick. Zhang is a fan of color-coding his films, evident in his great picture, Hero, a practice that he repeats in The Great Wall. The army that guards the wall is comprised of different types of warriors, each of which has its own color to distinguish it. The red ones are archers, the blues are swan-diving spearwomen, and so on. This provides a rare cogency to the battle scenes, which would otherwise be the same drab mudbaths we’re used to seeing. Zhang also wisely understands that neither Damon nor Pascal are convincing as great fighters, so the film is edited around their use of bows and projectile weapons, respectively. They participate in the mayhem, but Zhang knows who the professionals are. Even the monsters, while unimaginatively designed and same-y, overcome their CGI sludginess by being aggressively effective at killing and being legitimate threats to the characters.
This, unfortunately, is where the quality of this film ends. The screenplay, written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, based on a story Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, is dull as dishwater, communicated stiffly by the non-English-speaking cast and with equal awkwardness by the American cast members. There is a stab at silly patter between Damon and Pascal that falls flat, often torpedoed by Damon’s listless delivery. Damon is putting on a strange, almost-Irish accent that is never not distracting, going so far as to be even more befuddling than the Chinese actors who struggle with their own lines. This is one of the actor’s worst performances, by far.
Perhaps he was confused as everyone else is about why is there a white guy traipsing about ancient China? Zwick, one of the aforementioned story-writers, has made a couple of films before this about a white dude coming in to save all the people of color from insurmountable odds (i.e., Glory, The Last Samurai). This is a trope that needs to die, like, yesterday. Although the film is clearly supposed to be fiction — underscored by the opening titles that claim the story as one of the “legends” of the great wall — it sure is difficult to suspend your disbelief when there’s all this discussion of China’s place in the world in relation to Spain and wherever the hell William’s from. When there are only three white actors in a cast that could just as soon have been entirely Asian, it becomes painfully apparent that they exist exclusively to open up more wallets. There is also the far more insidious effect of perpetuating the myth of the white man’s burden, which contributes to the sort of political climate we have today.
You can explain away Damon’s importance by the fact that he carries the only weakness of the taotie, but there is no good reason for why he has to be white other than money. It’s this kind of cynical, box office-driven filmmaking that makes me sad, no matter how well put together the action scenes are. I could even forgive the clunky dialogue and predictable narrative if they were in the service of cool battles. This is often part and parcel of the genre. But in the case of The Great Wall, the greed is too flagrant to ignore. We need this wall about as much as we need that other one.
Action | Universal Pictures