The Great Wall provides unrelenting action, which at times is shockingly enjoyable, while it distracts from the lack of plot.
In The Great Wall, mercenaries enter China to discover monsters are attacking the wall. This movie really could have been terrible. The trailers left absolutely no impression on me, besides some of the characters looking like armored Power Rangers. I went into the movie preparing for the worst, and was surprised to find myself actually having fun.
It is likely no surprise that the movie amassed controversy based on the casting of Matt Damon as the lead in a movie set in China. Outside of the controversy, this is actually genius from a marketing perspective. Hollywood blockbusters largely exist to cater to the foreign box office, particularly China. Obviously, this movie will have huge appeal in China; it was released there in December and already grossed beyond its budget. However, to appeal to an America audience, unfortunately, it required a white male lead. Yet, it is likely because of Damon’s involvement in the film that the studio agreed to the budget, which was the highest for a movie filmed in China. Isn’t it better to have a movie highlighting a predominantly Asian cast and crew than not at all?
There is most definitely a problem of whitewashing in Hollywood movies. However, The Great Wall is a step in the right direction, not another example of whitewashing. First, Chinese director Zhang Yimou helmed the movie with a predominantly Asian crew. Damon exists in the movie as a lens for American audiences to be exposed to a movie about Chinese culture. His role was not written for an Asian person, but is specifically an outsider entering a culture unknown to him. It is also notable that the only human villain is white and there are no offensive Asian stereotypes within the almost entirely (all but three) Asian cast.
The movie at times falls slightly into the while male savior trope, but corrects itself. Jing Tian is just as much the lead of this movie as Damon, but unfortunately her involvement was not promoted enough. I believe some of the controversy might have been alleviated if the movie was not promoted only with Matt Damon’s face. She saves the day just as many times as Damon, and often has to save his life. She is the hero and moral center of the movie, while Damon just often happens to be in the right place at the right time. I had never seen Tian before in a movie, but I am incredibly excited to find out that she will have a significant role in Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising. I think The Great Wall is successful if it manages to further involve Asian actors in major American movies.
Somehow, this movie was enjoyable, despite having practically no plot or character. Damon’s character does have an arc, but it is a straightforward, unoriginal arc of him learning to fight for the greater good and not just himself. All around, the cast gave incredibly strong performances, all with great chemistry. However, Damon’s accent is distracting, as it shifts between possibly American and possibly Irish. The story is that the monsters are continuously evolving and the Nameless order has to keep stopping them. Somehow, this plot does not get boring even though the pacing is a little strange. Within the non-stop action, there are too many repetitive battles that last far too long.
Although some of the action scenes were a little too chaotic, some were choreographed beautifully. Each scene felt wholly original from the prior and showcased different technologies. Even though there were too many action scenes, none are completely worthless. An exciting score by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Pacific Rim) also highlights the action. The music did not draw attention away from it, but enhanced the atmosphere.
You will not find a poignant, intelligent movie inside The Great Wall, but that is not what you would expect going into it. However, it is a strong escapist action film with incredible performances and direction, just lacking an effective script. It positively highlights Chinese mythology in an exciting way, making this a surprisingly worthwhile movie. B-