The Great Wall – ★ ★ ★ ★ DVD Review
Starring global superstar Matt Damon and directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), Legendary’s The Great Wall tells the story of an elite force making a valiant stand for humanity on the world’s most iconic structure. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China. The Great Wall also stars Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe and Andy Lau.
Did you see The Great Wall? Did you hear about the controversies? Before it even came out there were accusations of racist whitewashing, of cultural appropriation and of being a “white-saviour” story with one heroic white man saving the day. These accusations mainly came because Matt Damon, a white, American actor was cast in the lead role, but director Zhang Yimou defended The Great Wall and Damon’s casting. He said the movie’s narrative couldn’t be further from a white-saviour story: “For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at [a] tentpole scale for a world audience.” Yimou also explained that Damon’s character was always intended to be white. “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,” Yimou said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly.
This is the biggest American-Chinese co-production ever, and probably one of the most expensive movies ever made in China. Casting Matt Damon in the lead role of your movie is usually a pretty good idea. Matt Damon sells tickets. Plain and simple. He is a bankable movie star known and recognized the world over. The film employed hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese actors and crew, which probably wouldn’t have happened if the film wasn’t greenlit by the studio. Having a bankable star in the lead is probably what helped “sell” The Great Wall to those studio executives in the first place.
The Great Wall takes place during China’s Song dynasty and follows two European mercenaries — William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) — who accidentally find the Great Wall as they’re searching for black powder (gunpowder) to bring back to Europe. William and Tovar are taken prisoner by the “Namless Order” that staffs the Wall, and learn that the real purpose of the 5,500-mile long structure it is to defend China (and the rest of the world) from the Tao Tei, alien monsters who crashed on earth on a meteor centuries ago and attack every sixty years. The Nameless Order is led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and broken up into five colour-coded, special military units: the melee-specialist Bear Troop (black), the acrobatic-specialist Crane Troop (blue), the archer-specialist Eagle Troop (red), the siege engine-specialist Tiger Troop (yellow), and the horse-mounted Deer Troop (purple).
Originally slated to be executed, William and Tovar are set aside when the Tao Tei attack the wall. Fearing the Tao Tei (and being crushed in the skirmish) they are freed by Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another European prisoner who we learn has been a voluntairy prisoner for some years when he was captured also looking for black powder. (I say he’s a voluntary prisoner because he has free reign in the Wall, but is not allowed to leave because he knows their location, their secrets, and about the Tao Tei.) Once freed, William and Tovar help the Nameless Order fight off the Tao Tei on the wall, and prove themselves worthy warriors. After the fight, William joins with the leaders to fight the Tao Tei, while Tovar and Ballard focus on escaping with the black powder.
The film was visually stunning, and the colour coding of the armies really worked to make the action scenes stand out on the screen. There were three separate battles, and the filmmakers did a very good job of not making them repetitive or just a rehash of the previous scene. The stunts and the effects were excellent. The acting was also quite good, I thought and I enjoyed the story. I really enjoyed Andy Lau as Strategist Wang and Tian Jing was great as Lin Mae. While they may have hinted at a romantic sub-plot, it didn’t really happen. I’m glad they didn’t, because I think that would have really diminished a strong, female character. Sure there were a few lighter moments in the film, such as Tovar bullfighting with a Tao Tei, and the scenes with the Emperor, but this to me was a popcorn film, so I was fine with it.
As for the “white-saviour” issues, I don’t think it really applies. Usually that means the white hero teaches the other culture how to be better and that the white culture is superior. William doesn’t teach the Chinese how to be better Chinese — it’s William who must redeem himself by risking his life to serve the greater good, which is a popular theme in both Chinese culture and entertainment. In other words, it’s William who has to learn to be more Chinese. William and Tovar are in awe of the technology that the Chinese possess, that’s why they’re there in the first place. They are essentially greedy and “dumb” foreigners in search of gunpowder and fortune, who know nothing of the Great Wall, the Nameless Order, or the Tao Tei. Sure they are capable warriors, but they are not bigger than the whole Chinese army. The story was largely a redemption story, because William talks about how he’s fought for money and fought for different causes before, but never really fought for the greater good or for himself. Fighting this fight makes him a better person, and they’re not just saving China, they’re fighting to save the whole world.
Bottom Line: If you’re asking me to believe that the Great Wall of China was constructed to keep alien monsters at bay, I can also believe that a white European was in China searching for gunpowder.
Posted on 17-06-20, in Movie Reviews, 4 Star and tagged Andy Lau, Great Wall, Great Wall of China, Jing Tian, Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tao Tei, taotei, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Yimou. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.