120 min. | PG-13
This looks like a movie about Matt Damon as the white man who steps in to be the hero in medieval China when no one else could do the job. Except that’s not really what The Great Wall is. He’s not the only white guy. There’s also his Spanish traveling companion (Pedro Pascal) and another dude (Willem Dafoe) who’s been a prisoner at the wall for 25 years. Well… perhaps a handful of other displaced white guys isn’t the best defense of casting a white lead in a Chinese film.
Still, the Chinese forces were doing an awesome job before Matt Damon’s hero character came along. He’s astonished, and rightfully so, by their capabilities. And while he does have some small contribution to make to the military effort, he is far from the only person here to pull off heroic feats. And men aren’t the only heroes here!
I would have loved The Great Wall just as much if it had starred Andy Lau, the great Hong Kong movie star, as the central character instead of shuffling him off to a supporting role (where he is still great). But then it’s unlikely this movie would have been released in IMAX 3D.
The spectacular fantasy warfare is the real reason to see The Great Wall. The characters are a bit thin, and in a few places the CGI is cheesy, but at its best The Great Wall is Lord of the Rings meets Aliens and presented with incredible imaginative grandeur, genuinely breathtaking 3D depth—stuff flying off the screen at you had me flinching and blinking in ways that I can’t recall ever happening before. Watching this movie creates the same sort of pure fun that usually comes with, say, a Star Wars flick. There’s a visual loopiness that’s more Hollywoodized than we’ve seen before from director Zhang Yimou — his glorious House of Flying Daggers also stared Lau—but is still tense and exciting in a way that feels fresh and engaging. The daring of the women warriors of the Crane Corps, led by Commander Lin (Jing Tian): oh my!
The soldiers of the Nameless Order — love it! — are defending the realm against hordes of monsters they call the Tao Tei, which are based on a fictitious creature from Chinese mythology that represents greed and gluttony. These things like to eat, and they do not appear to be of this Earth. There is a suggestion they might have alien origins. The symbolism of the Tao Tei is about as deep as The Great Wall gets, unless you want to count the unspoken and unintended implication that walls are required only to keep monsters out (and even then not unbreachable), not foreigners.
Damon’s William is a foreign mercenary who has journeyed to China to secure some of the rumored “black powder.” He’s welcomed even though he’s considered a barbarian. Though the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), are wary of him at first, what follows between the visitor and the locals is not a culture clash so much as an exchange of ideas, mostly in William’s direction.
The script may have been written by a bunch of white guys (Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz), but it doesn’t pretend that in the 10th or 11th century the white guy was not the savage, or that China did not represent the pinnacle of civilization, one with far superior technology — though I’m not sure magnets would have tripped up the Chinese the way that happens here.
I will be delighted when we reach a moment in which a movie like The Great Wall is considered worthy of a wide release and mainstream interest without a white man at its center. But until then, I’ll gladly take this.