THE GREAT WALL * * *
Starring Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau and Willem Dafoe. Screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Directed by Zhang Yimou.
As the center of the blockbuster universe moves towards China we’ve seen more and more odd genuflections from big-budget movies attempting to ingratiate themselves to this new, ridiculously lucrative market – whether it be supporting roles filled by overseas superstars in Iron Man and Star Wars movies, a weirdly random trip to Macau in Now You See Me 2 or what I’m told was straight-up Chinese government ass-kissing in that last Transformers. (I refuse to watch those movies anymore, but I believe what I’ve heard.) In recent years spectacle pictures were already becoming increasingly international affairs –with the global marketplace demanding movies stay dumb enough so as not to get lost in translation—but massive Chinese money seems to have super-accelerated the process.
It’s very possible that future blockbusters may all soon be like The Great Wall, with a token bone or two thrown to American audiences in what’s mainly a Chinese film. Directed by the legendary Zhang Yimou in the full-blown patriotic spectacle mode he brought to Hero and the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, it’s a splashy, old-fashioned monster movie stupid enough to amuse audiences from any culture that enjoys watching folks fight giant lizards.
Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal star as wandering Western bandits who journey to 12th century China in the hopes of stealing a mystical invention that will eventually come to be known as gunpowder. They’re stopped at the Great Wall by comely Tian Jing and the Nameless Order — an army in snazzy Technicolor armor defending the mainland from swarms of ugly reptiles with eyeballs in their shoulders. Turns out the Chinese went to the trouble of building this whole damn wall just to keep the critters out.
These creatures, called the Tao Tai, were nowhere to be found on the movie’s poster. And that’s where The Great Wall ran into trouble, leading to six months of complaining from the most tedious people on the Internet who all panicked thinking this might be another “white savior” narrative with Damon inserting himself into the history of China’s grandest architectural achievement like Mark Wahlberg into a recent tragedy. But since people don’t really bother to research what they’re hot-taking and think-piecing about anymore, we had to hear half-a-year of complaints about “whitewashed” historical inaccuracies in an unreleased movie where Matt Damon fights giant lizards from outer space.
I learned from reviews of Silence that “white saviors” no longer even have to save anything to be dismissed as such, and the briefly trending hashtag #ThanksMattDamon mocking the actor for inventing chopsticks, fortune cookies and such can’t be coming from anyone who saw The Great Wall (in all fairness, not many Americans did) as Damon is largely a subject of ridicule by the cooler, more competent Asian cast members. He’s playing a mangy European scoundrel who, through exposure to the advanced Chinese culture learns the virtues of teamwork and self-sacrifice. Sure, he *helps* Tian Jing’s Commander Lin save the day, but she’s the one who takes the final shot.
Despite six credited American writers, The Great Wall’s dialogue is stiff enough to resemble Mandarin subtitles. Damon’s attempt at an Irish accent sounds like Brendan Gleeson with a mouth full of mashed potatoes, and by and large the Western actors tend to flail around compared to the unruffled composure of co-stars like Andy Lau and a rather ridiculously alluring Tian Jing. Shorn of the windbaggy exposition and character backstories that usually bog down special effects extravaganzas, the movie sprints along for just over ninety minutes ‘till the credits.
It’s a big, dopey visual marvel, with Zhang Yimou deploying his usual dazzling array of colors (House Of Flying Daggers’ Xiaoding Zhao and Blackhat’s Stuart Dryburgh shared cinematography duties) for eye-popping and wondrous battle sequences – in particular a hot-air balloon army and a chaotic climax illuminated by shafts of light beaming though stained glass. If this is gonna be the future of blockbusters then I hope they all at least look this good.