The Great Wall

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pescal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han

Director: Zhang Yimou

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cutting Away Right Before the Blood and Guts Spill Out

Release Date: February 17, 2017

Matt Damon’s prominence in The Great Wall’s ad campaign has caused a bit of a fuss. Is this yet another example of the White Savior complex, come to save the helpless foreigners? In the actual film, Damon is not the leader of the Chinese army that the promos seem to make him out to be. But he does save the day. Although he kind of does so accidentally. Except by the end when he knows exactly what he’s doing. So… you could aim your social justice call-to-arms against The Great Wall, but it would be an awfully silly flick to focus on.

Damon’s presence is essentially an afterthought, despite him being one of the main characters. He may have been part of the story from conception, but this smacks of a business rather than artistic decision, regardless of intention. The Great Wall is already a hit in China, and it would be nice if it could add some bank in the U.S. (and Latin America, thus Damon’s partner is played Chilean-born Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones and Narcos).

If the white faces are there to add star power, it does not quite work out that way, perhaps because director Zhang Yimou (HeroRaise the Red LanternHouse of Flying Daggers) does not have much experience outside of Chinese martial arts flicks. So the action is rousingly shot (Damon’s archery skills are thrillingly put on display throughout), but the English speakers find their charisma diminished. Luckily, Jing Tian, as the Commander of the Chinese Army, carries a lot of the heavy lifting of dialogue and plot progression, and she knows exactly what she is doing.

To get to the actual meat of this story, this film is concerned very little about cultural imperialism but a great deal about B-movie monsters. It posits that the Great Wall of China was built to keep out not invading Mongol hordes, but rather mythical lizard creatures that indiscriminately eat everything in their path. The character design and relentless ferociousness are fun in a schlocky, Midnight Movie Madness sort of way. (Thank you, Cinematic Gods, that they are not the umpteenth version of giant bug aliens.)

The sci-fi B-movies of the fifties and sixties represented the cultural fears of that era (particularly, nuclear holocaust and the insidious creep of communism). If we apply that same rubric to The Great Wall, then what does China fear in 2017? As it becomes a bigger and bigger player in the world economy, is there concern that the Chinese identity will be eaten up by Western hegemony? Or perhaps these monsters are the Chinese id, and this is a warning to everyone else of the Red Dragon’s Rise. Alas, they prove to have one key vulnerability that ensures their demise, just as this film ends up being a little too disposable to pay it much heed.

The Great Wall is Recommended If You LikeGodzilla, the archery scenes from Lord of the Rings, the Brood from X-Men

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Grenades

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