THE GREAT WALL fulfills two different personal moviegoing habits of mine:
1) trying to see some of the higher profile Asian imports that play at the AMC theater here
2) going to lightly attended afternoon shows of almost every fantasy sword-dude movie that comes out
Maybe you can’t call this an import, because it’s produced by Universal and Legendary, it’s mostly in English and its star Matt Damon (SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON) is an American white in my opinion. And maybe you can’t call it a fantasy sword-dude movie either, because it’s more in a fantasy bow-and-arrow-dude vein. But it is from the great Chinese director of lush historical epics Zhang Yimou (RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), it’s the most expensive movie ever filmed entirely in China ($135 million), and it was released there two months ago and had already made $224.5 million worldwide by the time it came to us. So it’s close enough to these two categories that it piqued my interest.
Damon plays William (that’s all the credits call him), an amoral mercenary with a vaguely Irish-ish accent. Only he and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones, Narcos) survive when their band of warriors is ambushed while on a quest to China to find a fabled “black powder.” That means gun powder I believe, not cracked peppercorn or texas tea or NAKED LUNCH bug powder. Anyway, they also get attacked by some kind of monster that they don’t even get a good look at, but William chops off its big green monster claw arm and takes it as a souvenir.
Soon they’re captured by soldiers of “The Nameless Order” posted on the Great Wall of China. When the Chinese find out that one of these whites killed a monster they decide to keep them tied up but not kill them. They’re being all top secret national security about it, but it turns out they know they’re about to experience an attack from the fuckin Tao Tei, a swarm of hundreds of thousands of sharp-toothed man-eating beasties torn out of a mountain by a comet two thousand years ago that show up every 60 years to feast on yummy human flesh and take another shot at conquering the world. And let’s be clear, society would be very different today under Tao Tei control. I’m sure it would have some pros but also many cons. So we should be very thankful for the events depicted here.
Also, it is my duty to point out that this character is a combat veteran traveling to Asia and learning new things while sporting sort of a ponytail and using a shifting accent. He may be an ancestor or precedent for Steven Seagal.
William gets a tour from Commander Lin (Jing Tian, SPECIAL ID, POLICE STORY: LOCKDOWN), who was taught English by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.), who was also captured while trying to find the black powder… 25 years ago! Not a good sign.
Commander Lin shows him some of their cool fighting methods, and he shows them some new ones when he gets caught up in the battle and is the one who figures out how to kill the monster that gets onto the top of the wall. They get to know each other and bond, but she’s disgusted to realize that he fights for whoever will hire him and not just for his people (because he has none). And of course he starts to grow a conscience and disappoint Pero by starting to neglect their plans to abscond with the powder as he gets more and more involved in monster-war. He learns about trust and loyalty and what not. He starts to care about some people.
Andy Lau (DRUNKEN MASTER II, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME) lends a strong presence as the chief strategist, though he’s a little bit sidelined in favor of Damon.
These creatures remind me of something from HELLBOY: big mouths filled with row after row of sharp teeth, swirly, rune-like patterns formed on their leathery skin, eyeballs located in unexpected places. Some have flaps on their backs like window blinds that vibrate with the roars of their queen, or dilophosaurus type headflaps that they all spread out and lock together like the shields of a phalanx in 300 or RED CLIFF. The main beasties swarm on the wall, climb over each other and scramble to get over, their claws sliding and scratching like a big dog running too fast into a kitchen.
The screenplay is credited to Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro (PRINCE OF PERSIA) and Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON, ROGUE ONE), story by Max Brooks (WORLD WAR Z novel) and Edward Zwick (THE LAST SAMURAI, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK) & Marshall Herskovitz (director of DANGEROUS BEAUTY), but the visual details of the world seem very Yimou. While this obviously has a basis in Chinese history and culture, there’s alot of STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS type fantastical imagination even in how the army works. The different types of troops have detailed, form-fitting, animatl-themed and color-coded armor, my favorite being the sky blue of the all female Crane Squadron, women who bravely dive off of platforms tied to ropes and stab at the Tao Teis with spears.
They’re really good at it but man is it a mess when the monsters get a bite at them. Like the battles in the HOBBIT movies there’s all kinds of detailed mayhem, like when a monster bites a soldier who falls off the wall and then the monster drops too so it can bite her again in the air. On top of the wall the Crane spotters pile up the metal hoops that go around their waists as they start to come back up empty and blood-spattered.
The eastern and western cultures are able to cross-pollinate methods and tech. William figures out how to fuck up the monsters using a magnet. He tries to explain whale hunting to them and together they create pronged hooks coated in bright yellow poison, fired with heavy chains for a monster-fishing expedition. The Nameless introduce William to, among other things, “screaming arrows,” which have bamboo flutes attached so they can shoot them into monsters and then you’ll hear a whistle as they’re coming at you in the fog. They also have some topnotch hot air balloons that they need to race the herd to the boyish Emperor (Junkai Wang, singer of a boy band that appeared in POUND OF FLESH), who they find cowering behind his throne.
The 3D looks good, and interestingly weird: I swear the white people, and especially Damon, are made to look misshapen, their foreheads and noses exaggerated like an extra bit of special effects makeup, or a way to view these strange outsiders through the eyes of the locals.
Is this a movie you will like? It depends if you like movies that climax with (SPOILER FOR CLIMAX) the heroes fighting thousands of monsters inside a tower with beautiful sunbeams shining through colorful stained glass windows and then they get to the top and the monsters spill out like overflowing beer foam as they swing out on a rope and the monsters keep jumping at them and missing and they’re trying to shoot a dynamite arrow at a creature covered in bombs to blow up the queen and the white guy has seen FURY ROAD so he realizes it would be best to swallow his ego and let the lady take the shot. Personally that is my type of movie, so I had a good time.
It’s not really important to stand up for the honor of a big expensive special effects movie, but I’ve seen this trailer laughed at and the movie scoffed at online and Matt Damon made fun of with accusations of “whitewashing” and making a “white savior” movie. And people can believe what they want and ultimately we’re on the same team because I share their goals of racial equality and opportunities for Asian actors. But it really pushes my buttons because I feel like it’s an uninformed reaction to the specific situation that ends up belitting the right of a great director to create the art he’s passionate about instead of what you think would be best for society.
First of all, your assumptions about what type of story this is are off. This white dude in China isn’t anybody’s savior. He works with a Chinese woman who is morally superior to him, and only through their combined efforts are they able to save the day and then he leaves as a better person because of what she taught him. (The people mad that it’s Chinese propaganda are closer to the mark.)
And please don’t give me that shit about historical accuracy. You know you can’t use that card on a fantasy movie about warriors in colorful armor bungee jumping to fight hordes of bizarre creatures. And honestly you should be thankful they called it THE GREAT WALL instead of SIEGE OF THE COMET CHOMPERS or something, because then you would’ve known it had nothing to do with history and wouldn’t have been able to throw around your Great Wall historical facts you looked up. Everybody wins.
I know everybody and their uncle’s “ha ha why would a white guy be in China, oh hollyweird you’ve done it again I am so above it that I even spotted it immediately and made sure my friends knew about it” response means to be critical of the white male point of view monopolizing the movies we see. Fair, but let’s be careful not to look down on multi-cultural, international stories where people travel and learn from each other and shit. Those are a fun type of story that should be a little more meaningful to Americans as of this year in my opinion.
But the main point I want to make is, he’s fucking Zhang Yimou, if he wants to make one of his epics as an international co-production and have a white guy as one of the main characters then he can fucking do it. Who the fuck are you to condescend to a great director because you made up some thing that Matt Damon represents to you.
I don’t think THE GREAT WALL is as as beautiful as HERO or even his weird BLOOD SIMPLE period remake A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP. This is partly because it’s less physical and more slathered in digital smoke, fire and monsters, and partly because I miss all the martial arts. But it’s novel to see Yimou’s artistry – intricately designed armor, costumes and weapons, beautiful colors, meticulously arranged masses of marching troops and flying arrows – combined with the big budget summer blockbuster type theatrics of Industrial Light and Magic and Weta. On the credits you see so many American-looking names, so many Chinese, but also French and other nationalities. Like Lin and William they bring together the skills they’ve been trained in and together forge something new that could not have been accomplished by one of these cultures alone.
So hooray for international cooperation. I wouldn’t want all movies to be like this, but I’ll take a few of them.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.