By Noah Gittell
On the surface, “The Great Wall” feels like a significant cultural event. It’s a big-budget Chinese film with a legitimate Hollywood star in the lead role. It would be easy, in fact, to get lost in the symbolism. What does the existence of “The Great Wall” say about the future of the movie business? Will it lead to future collaborations between the U.S. and China? Will it have an impact on relations between the two nations off-screen? And what lessons can be gleaned about that relationship from the film itself? In other words, maybe the movie industry could actually break down a wall or two.
That’s a lot of pressure on a movie – and a moviegoer. Put your mind at ease. “The Great Wall” is such an exceedingly moronic film that it puts such questions to rest. Helmed by successful Chinese director Yimou Zhang and written by a trio of American screenwriters, the film is a paint-by-numbers blockbuster that only seems more interesting because of its Chinese flair.
It’s your typical East-meets-Western, with Damon playing William, a mercenary who has traveled to the Far East in search of gunpowder during the Song Dynasty. After he and a colleague (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Chinese army and brought to a station inside the Great Wall, they learn the true purpose of the mighty structure: to keep out a species of dragon-like creatures that the Chinese have fought for generations. The film is centered around a series of inventive battle sequences, in which female soldiers bungee off the wall, expert archers sling whistling arrows at the beasts, and giant catapults hurl flaming orbs across hundreds of yards. The Chinese army’s creative approach to warfare is a contrast to William’s more straightforward acumen with both the sword and the bow. In the end, both are needed.
Of course, William’s story will feel familiar to viewers of American blockbusters. As the film begins, he only cares about himself, which gets him into trouble with the lady general (Tian Jing) he is intent on romancing. After hearing that he has spent his life working for whomever pays him the most, she asserts, “We are nothing like each other.” His original plan is to escape with the gunpowder, but after being challenged by his ladylove, he learns to contribute to a cause greater than himself.
This redemption arc has been used in American westerns for decades (John Wayne and Clint Eastwood specialized in it), but “The Great Wall” pitches it as an Eastern idea, arguing that it is the combination of China’s sense of community and William’s – or America’s – bravery and individuality that saves the day. It’s a clever bit of cultural appropriation that is sure to leave fans on both sides of the Pacific cheering.
That’s really the best “The Great Wall” has to offer. It’s a crowd-pleaser. The battle scenes are well staged, but the dialogue is painfully terrible, even for an American blockbuster. Certain lines – “They are pretty nervous for a wall that big” – make little grammatical sense, but perhaps they are designed for translation, which may play well in China but comes off as nearly illiterate here. Further, the characters are, by design, sketched in broad strokes only. Appealing to a broad, multicultural audience forces you to rely on archetypes, but here in precludes much emotional involvement.
But that’s nothing new either. This is the way the industry has been heading for decades. Capturing the foreign market has become vital for studio films, which has led to an increase in spectacle and decrease in the kind of thoughtful adult dramas that Hollywood used to pride itself on. “The Great Wall” may not be particularly artful, but it’s no less engaging than “The Lego Batman Movie,” “Star Trek Beyond” or, another Matt Damon flick, “Jason Bourne.” At least it gives us some different actors to look at. That’s an admittedly low bar – or wall – to surpass, but in the dregs of February, I’ll take what I can get.
My Rating: Put it on your queue