Before anyone had seen a moment of Zhang Yimou's colorful and bombastic wuxia fantasy, The Great Wall, it had already been labeled as "white-washing" and "culturally insensitive". Why? Because the film, a totally fictional alien invasion-type flick set in Ancient China, dared to have Matt Damon as one of its stars. Heaven forbid. Get a life, people. Designed from the ground up to appeal to the world's two biggest movie markets, the U.S. and China, The Great Wall surrounds Damon with Chinese superstars such as Hong Kong's Andy Lau and the lovely Jing Tian. From our perspective we see this as a Matt Damon movie, because obviously that is where our bias leans. But take a step back and you'll see that any "white savior" narrative is completely unfounded. This isn't The Last Samurai, folks.
Eye-poppingly gorgeous in every vibrant frame, the $150M feature is Yimou's biggest and a visual marvel not unlike House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, which looked like rainbows come to life. Yimou's wuxia flair meshes well with the grand Independence Day-style scope of the West, even if, sadly, it has adopted some of our blockbuster culture's worst qualities. It's just a big, stupid monster movie. Period. There's no conceivable amount of thematic weight on it whatsoever and any character arc is shallow. That simplicity is actually a good thing, because to attempt more would have led it down the culturally insensitive path many assume it's already on.
Damon plays William, an English (Irish??? His accent is dubious either way.) mercenary on the hunt with his Spanish colleague Tovar (Pedro Pascal) for black powder, an explosive substance they hope to make a fortune from. They are chased by bandits right up to China's Great Wall, mere moments before it comes under attack by monstrous hordes. William had killed one earlier, and the Chinese army is impressed enough not to kill both men straight away. Rather than stealing the black powder and escaping the way Tovar wants to, William seeks to prove himself a hero to General Lin Mae (Tian) and Strategist Wang (Lau) by helping to defeat the monster, which are known as Tao Tei and attack the Wall every sixty years.
While you might think this is when Damon takes over the movie, it isn't. William is merely a piece in their battle plan. More often than not William is left dumbfounded by the Chinese military's incredible might and elaborate weaponry using arrows, spears, dive-bombing female warriors, and explosives. William proves to be a more than capable warrior with a bow, and soon he becomes one of Lin Mae's trusted allies, although constant scheming by Tovar and the sketchy Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) threaten to ruin everything. Consistently it's the Chinese who display power and loyalty, while the Americans...well, some of them exhibit our worst traits.
The CGI gets ropey when thousands upon thousands of Tao Tei begin flooding the screen, but Yimou at least keeps each of their attacks fresh by showing the fights from differing perspectives. He's less sure-footed when the fighting stops, and seems to have a particular difficulty with his American cast. Damon doesn't seem fully invested in William's evolution from brigand-to-hero, while Pascal and Dafoe don't get enough to do that's memorable. However, Tian and Lau are comfortable in characters very familiar to this genre, and they help lift their co-stars when the action slows down.
The Great Wall isn't great cinema but it's a beautiful, well-made, adventurous monster movie that could be American audiences' gateway to even better Chinese epics. It deserves to be judged on the merits not on someone else's preconceived notions based on a trailer. The best thing about The Great Wall is that it feels like a true partnership between the East and the West, of which there will be many more to come.
Rating: 3 out of 5