Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?
In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.
Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.
Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.
The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.
The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.
But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.
The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.
P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.