Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
Runtime: 103 Minutes
The Great Wall is an incredibly strange object of a movie. While predominantly a Chinese production, it has been squarely marketed at the west as a Chinese blockbuster via the involvement of the Wanda Group (owner of production company Legendary Pictures and AMC theatres). Essentially a glorified action movie using its period setting as the set up for a fantastically silly revisionist monster story, it plays its strokes with broad appeal in its interpretation of what a summer blockbuster should traditionally look like to draw in audiences.
This is sadly a detriment to the state of the film that despite its goofy selling point, the film is a generic work of fantasy nonetheless. The monsters are basic in design and function, and every line of spoken dialogue in Chinese and English language is expectedly conventional to the rote archetypes that are drawn of the characters.
To its credit director Zhang Yimou has the entire film looking as gorgeous as he can possibly make it. The costume design for the Chinese army defending the wall, in particular, is very beautiful and boldly colourful with striking reds and blues, the art direction is solid as well with certain locations looking like a rainbow falling over the scene in otherwise dank and depressing locations. The action scenes are well mounted if emotionally uninvolving and too often resort to slow-motion and an obscenely marketable use of 3D pop effects.
The casting of Matt Damon, in what has been read as a whitewashing or reduction to the white-saviour narrative of so many cross-cultural pictures, has always been intended as a selling point for transatlantic markets and to put it on the worldwide map. Damon is only okay at best, as are the rest of the English speaking roles of Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal. But the star-making turn comes from Jing Tian as Commander Lin Mae, who really comes off as the film's main character despite Damon’s presence at the forefront of the marketing material.
It also leans into something more interesting going on beyond the visage of the film. Zhang Yimou’s position as a grandiloquent proponent of chest beating patriotic filmmaking lends the film its perspective, as we see Damon’s European mercenary with a lack of allegiance inspired into his character arc by being awestruck by the selfless acts of teamwork and heroism of the Chinese military. It’s a glorified piece of propaganda-lite mass-market entertainment that has been slipped under the radar of the outwardly Hollywood-esque presentation of the main feature.
The Great Wall will not stand the test of time as a feature in its own right, it’s too basic and silly and overall disconnected as a piece. But as a cultural artefact, it’s fascinating to pour over the individual pieces of its production and intentions as China attempts to plant its flag on the blockbuster scene. It’s sporadically entertaining on a visual level but doesn’t leave much of a memorable impact.