I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Great Wall

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 20th, 2017 at 2:51 pm and is filed under Action, Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “The Great Wall”

  1. It’s a little weird you think on this kind of massive international co-production that you think Zhang Yimou would be the one making the call on whether it stars Matt Damon or not. It’s not condescending to the director to think he’s not making that call, but the corporate conglomerate funding and organizing the film (and operating under significant oversight from the Chinese government) would be in charge of that decision. I’m not sure that perspective deserves a “fuck you,” anyway.

  2. I agree with all of this.

  3. This was a nice looking movie with a good pace. I was pleasantly surprised! It won me over pretty quickly because it throws a bunch of fun things at you right away:

    -Lizard monsters created by a meteor that was sent to China cuz the emperor was greedy

    -Great costumes. The different colored armors looked fabulous and every commander wears a cape

    -The insane idea that is the Crane Corps. Bungee spearing!

    Also, Damon and Pascal have decent warrior bro chemistry and I liked how quickly the Crane Corps commander was promoted to General.

    As for the “What kind of propaganda is this?” question, I can tell you that the Chinese characters are honorable warriors who protect China (and basically THE WORLD) and the foreigners are mercs who want to make money, but… the movie is more about cooperation than anything. It’s a goofy fantasy adventure movie with a “We’re not so different…” theme. The queen lizard is defeated by a big 3D TEAM-UP moment.

  4. Vern, sorry that we kept tagging you on my twitter argument with the Gentleman from China.

  5. the controversy is contrived bullshit

    this movie is of china, about china, for china. damon is simply exotic fluff. for them. it’s white grunts learning to sacrifice for the greater good as per the “superior” culture. this is a chinese perspective in a chinese film… with some exotic barbarian european eye candy

    anyone complaining about the casting is coming from the west, there is zero controversy in china. that should tell you a lot right there. it’s just drama queens looking really hard to be offended to talk about whitewashing… in a piece of chinese product? how does that even fucking work? it doesn’t. it’s complete bullshit

    it’s “yellowwashing” at best: europeans as barbarians in need of education. but even that charge of course is a stretch. it’s not offensive at all. i’m just trying to demonstrate how hard someone has to work to be offended by anything here

    the white washing charge really reveals that some people don’t even care about the facts, they are looking for controversy regardless of actual context. it’s insulting to simple decency and smearmongering the hard work put into the film that people expect their contrived fake “outrage” to be taken seriously. get the fuck out of here with the lies

    i don’t know why, but this kind of fake drama really pisses me off

  6. Yeah, I don’t see the problem. Hollywood borrows China’s movie stars all the time. Why can’t China borrow Hollywood’s?

  7. chemical burn – I don’t think I said “fuck you,” but sorry if it came off overly harsh. I just think people are being inadvertently disrespectful to Zhang Yimou by acting like he made the movie against his will. He didn’t originate the story, but he signed on to it knowing what it was and poured his heart into it. If you don’t believe that, here’s part of a statement he released in response to the controversy:

    “Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.”

    But I also think some of the people criticizing it did not know what the movie was or who made it.

    Sternshein – That’s okay, it was interesting, and you handled it fairly. But I hadn’t seen the movie at the time and now that I have I’m much more confused by his stance.

  8. Saw this in Dec and enjoyed it for what it is.

    You know joining The Nameless Order isn’t that bad a gig. A fifth of the army and hot chicks and even better you only fight one war in sixty years.

    Sounds good to me.

  9. I also liked this a little more than I expected to, mainly for the female empowerment and inventive battle tactics.

    I thought the CGI was crap though but that’s Hollywood, man.

  10. Thank you Vern, spot on rant at the end there. That stuff hits a weird cinephile nerve for me as it just feels like a lack of respect for great directors.

    In a weird way it sort of reminds me of The Young Pope’s internet reaction — all I’d heard about either project for months was the snarky, knee-jerk, “Hollywood is so dumb and I’m so smart and progressive” one-dimensional takes on twitter (haha he’s a young Pope! haha Matt Damon saves China!). I would have had no idea that massive talents like Sorrentino and Zhang were behind those projects from following their online reactions.

    Zhang, especially, is one of the world’s greatest living directors and no one even mentioned him in any of these think pieces. You would think Ed Zwick directed this thing and didn’t just co-write the script.

  11. This movie has intelligent monsters, inventive battle tactics and strategy, honour among warriors, women in charge without anyone questioning it, coherent action scenes, cool names like “Nameless Order” etc.

    Love it all.

    What more do people want ?

  12. It blows that we live in an age of people actively seeking – and very probably making shit up if they can’t find anything – controversy.

    The whole whining about this one in particular always felt utterly contrived.

  13. Saw this a few weeks ago and thought it was alright. Zero problem with the casting. Anyone who doesn’t like a classic “mistrust born of unfamiliarity ultimately gives way to mutual respect through actions” should probably stop watching sword movies. On the other hand, it’s basically a whole film of just the battle of Helm’s Deep with nicer coloured armour and less interesting baddies.

    Crane Corps are clearly awesome though.

  14. I felt pretty alone looking forward to this one as a Yimou-fan and a monster fan. Even the monster-movie fan sites I go to, who even cover fucking SHARKNADO movies, where shitting on it and refused to see it. The Hong Kong movie fan sites I go to will only report on white-washing aspect (arguably they also bitched about MAN OF TAI CHI before-and-after that one came out and it goes without saying that that one is awesome). I agree with all the comments here in that the white-washing complaints do not apply to this one and also felt it was a non-controversy going in.

    So yeah I really enjoyed it. I was surprised that it was a straight-up monster movie, I guess with Yimou directing I was expecting a something much more pretentious and less B-movie so that was a very pleasant surprise. So yeah I thought it was a lot of fun and actually worth the LIMAX 3D up-charge.

    I can’t wait to start having similar conversations next month when GHOST IN THE SHELL comes out! *groan*

  15. I wonder if all the brave progressives who try to/do start fake controversies like this white wash claim for this movie realize they just fuel the Conservatives who they hate?

  16. Vern, I agree that the controversy seems fueled by folks’ imaginary version of the movie, but I also think you’re still being weirdly naive – was Zhang Yimou going to release a statement saying “Yeah, they forced all of this on me, it was supposed to be one thing but ended up being another.” I mean, I’m disagreeing with you more than I mean to, but these kind of decisions on that big of a film just aren’t made by the filmmaker in all but the rarest of circumstances. If he had said, “Get rid of Matt Damon and this ‘plot point’ or I walk!” it would have been “goodbye, director” not a complete reimagining of the story so that it moved in line with whatever artistic vision he might’ve had.

    And with so many writers and rewrites on an international co-production being done within the oversight of a government notorious for its censorship and control of its pop-culture/media, it’s equally impossible to know at what state the film was in when he came on board – maybe it had a white guy in it at that, maybe it didn’t. These films gets changed so freakin’ much on their trips through the sausage factory that taking Zhang Yimou sorta at face value about how this is his artistic vision (and not the careful result of audience-and-marketing-analysis (with a dash of nationalism to keep the Chinese government happy)) is very dubious.

    My point is that even if you agree with the controversy, Matt Damon and Zhang Yimou are not useful targets for pushing back against the film’s “white-washing” or “white savior” problems. It’s not disrespectful to the director to see him as a smaller player in all this – the studios, businessmen & Chinese government have way more say than any creative type involved with the film. Anyway, I shouldn’t belabor it because I agree with you (and Zhang Yimou!) that this film is a really, really (really) bad example of those problems. I don’t think you and I are even disagreeing – or that Zhang Yimou’s statement is in conflict with anything I’m saying – just that you present yourself as a Leftist/Liberal and from that perspective I think trying to get a really finely honed grasp on these issues is a conversation worth having. They’ve become the dominant framework for which any issues like racism, international policy and mass media are discussed.

  17. This is exactly the kind of non-issue conservatives point to when they’re shitting on liberals. The fucking director makes a direct statement about his perfectly reasonable intentions for the film (Why is it so hard to believe that he would want to make a movie with Matt Damon?) and even that’s not enough to satisfy these condescending, woker-than-thou pricks who’ve never let the specifics of any particular case get in the way of their broad, performative outrage. It’s no wonder they can’t get the other side to take actual racism seriously when they’re running around like the sky is falling every time a movie comes out.

  18. Chemical burn: I’m not attacking you personally. You’re just explaining the argument, not necessarily making it. I just have a problem with the lack of proportion in the world today. I feel like so many liberals cry wolf so often that it’s creating a smokescreen of fake outrage that obscures all the real problems out there. People have completely forgotten how to choose their battles, and it’s affecting the war.

  19. Crushinator Jones

    February 21st, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Here’s the paradox that I haven’t been able to reconcile:

    1) An American production puts an Asian actor in the movie (like Byung-hun Lee in the new Magnificent Seven) set in America: no big deal.

    2) An Asian production puts an American actor in a movie in Asia: white savior and even if it isn’t the movie studio probably forced it on the director.

    It’s like there’s a subtle form of blanket stereotyping here, that individual Asian directors couldn’t possibly make a decision because they like diversity, white actors, or Matt Damon. They’re people too, you know.

    I mean Hollywood was putting Chow Yun Fat in movies in the 90s. It’s entirely possible that – check this out – the producers and directors were big Damon fans and wanted Damon in their film because they like him and wanted to see what he could do.

  20. I also think the whole whitewashing/white saviour thing was a Idris-Elba-as-Heimdall style non-controversy that got way more attention than it deserved. Especially since Matt Damon is much more of a supporting character than the advertising makes it seem. But this is China’s attempt to bust into the big, dumb, Hollywood-style blockbuster market, and they ain’t gonna do that without a white guy to put on the poster. I don’t think Zhang Yimou was forced into it, but he’s not an idiot and he knows that without Damon (or some other bankable Hollywood celeb) it would have been another CG-filled Chinese historical fantasy that nobody outside of China (especially not the people complaining about the casting) would have paid any attention to.

  21. Majestyk, I couldn’t take it as personal attack if only because on the Tank Girl thread you articulated so much of what I was thinking (I was even listening to Bum Rush the Show when you mentioned putting on Takes a Nation!) With Great Wall’s controversy and the Beyonce stuff, I don’t even know what the Left is talking about anymore so I’m trying to work through it. Beyonce can play Qadaffi’s birthday party AND play Coachella this year to line Phil Anschutz’s pockets and I’m supposed to give a shit about a Grammy? You have Leftist/Liberals/Democrats all over twitter talking very self-seriously about considering people collaborators and making veiled threats about remembering those who “collaborated” with this “regime” and she’s literally in business with a guy who has been a major donor to conservative causes for-fuckin’-ever. She’s personally going to generate millions of dollars for a guy who is going to turn around and funnel it into Trump’s power structure but the my side is caught up in fight over a lame award?

    So, I’m on your wavelength (and Vern’s, too… I think) even if I’ve ended up in a weird place with it. I think the defense of a film like Great Wall can’t be “it’s this director’s vision” or that it has an international casts to go with a messages about “learning from each other.” It just doesn’t feel like the correct analysis of the issues happening during a big-time cultural shake-up – it feels in some way like getting played. The Chinese government is really bad. And I can’t figure out why the Left has a Russia-hating boner like they’re auditioning to be part of Reagan’s cabinet but really is intent on doing everything in our power to placate China. They’re both really bad governments. But I’m like you where I feel like the political ideology I want to support is constantly caught up in shit that does not matter and additionally I think it keeps leaning on frameworks and analysis that are rapidly losing their meaning – smokescreens and crying wolf as you put it.

    Anyway, like anybody, I’m trying to sort it all out and the Left’s insistence on being strident and condescending is really wearing me out. How about don’t yell at me “Who the fuck are you,” you know, when I’m ambivalent about the political meaning of Great Wall? How about don’t label me a collaborator or a bad ally or whatever if I think the Beyonce phenomenon is pretty weak? How about don’t “LOL White tears” me and show me the cover of decades old comic book propaganda designed for children if I think the violent repression of public speech stands far more of a chance of boomeranging and getting used against us than being meaningful resistance? I’d just feel a lot better if the Left weren’t being fueled by Rocky IV memes and hysteria over authors who would bite it anyway if Trump ever had his Night of the Long Knives.

  22. I also think there’s a “you can care about multiple issues! you can care about the Grammies AND redistricting!” defense that gets thrown around a lot, but I’m not sure how true it is. There’s a finite amount of energy and focus. Getting people energized and keeping them focused is one of the main functions of political organizing. So if I have this conversation about the Great Wall it’s all because I feel like I personally have lost sight of the proper framing and I’m exhausted by it.

  23. Crushinator Jones

    February 22nd, 2017 at 8:57 am

    Well chemical burn, I think that a lot of the cultural identity stuff is thrown out as chaff to distract from the fact that the center-left has no real economic agenda beyond “let the corporations – and more specifically, finance – erode everyone’s security and force them into an endless race to the bottom while the guys at the top get rich(er).”

  24. Can’t speak for Zhang Yimou but my feeling is that Chinese are by-and-large proud of casting Matt Damon in the movie. I’ve seen a couple of quotes pulled from Weibo or Weixin which suggest some Chinese are unhappy with his casting but honestly it’s like pulling quotes from Twitter or Youtube comments – there are always dissenters and they always shout loudest. Damon is a bonafide star in China and it’s generally seen as a coup to get him onboard a ‘local’ production. Industry folks are acutely aware that the Chinese productions are lower standard and have far less cultural impact than the Hollywood productions so Zhang Yimou directing Matt Damon in a Chinese set Sci-fi film is viewed quite positively overall, it’s innovative by Chinese film standards.

  25. I just saw this one last night, and it was fun to watch Zhang Yimou create a big CGI action film. I like the fact that he seems to be going back and forth between genre pictures and smaller films. The biggest problem I had with the movie wasn’t that Damon was white, but that he had one of those inconsistent Kevin Costner in Robin Hood accents. He seemed a bit lost in the movie, and I usually like Matt Damon.

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