Film review: ‘The Great Wall’
The Great Wall of China was built to protect Chinese states and empires and prevent raids and invasions. The original conception of the wall took place from 259-210 B.C.E., but then went through a few millennia of on and off construction. The Great Wall we know today was built in between the 14th and 17th century and became a lasting symbol of the country’s resilience and strength.
Its latest portrayal comes in the year’s first blockbuster film, the unmemorable “The Great Wall,” a grand, CGI-heavy spectacle in which Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting”, the “Bourne” saga) and a massive infantry of Chinese warriors seek to defeat an equally massive army of extraterrestrial monsters.
The story is based on a so-called legend that could have only been conceived in Hollywood: a wily European mercenary William Garin (Damon), along with his silver-tongued Spanish sidekick Pero Tovar (comedically played by Pedro Pascal of “Game of Thrones”), is taken captive by a secret fortress-protecting warrior army known as The Nameless Order, led by strong-willed Lin Mae (breakout actress Jing Tian) and an adviser named Wang (Andy Lau, “House of Flying Daggers,” “Internal Affairs”). Willem Dafoe (“Platoon,” “Spider-Man”) co-stars as a Western prisoner, held captive by The Nameless Order for 25 years.
As the two Europeans are taken captive, the army is preparing for an invasion like no other: a mythological species of savage, extraterrestrial monsters, the Tao Tei, which run from the mountains from the North every 60 years to wreak havoc upon the Chinese.
The extremely skilled Chinese warriors prove to be no match for these creatures…until Garin and Tovar show them how it’s done in the film’s first of many outrageous battle scenes. The Order then sees the value in these two mercenaries and they join forces to try to defeat the Tao Tei once and for all.
Amid the film boycotts due to the controversy of casting Damon — whose unconvincing Irish accent wavers throughout the film — as the lead in a predominantly Chinese cast, he doesn’t do well in justifying the casting choice. The incredible notion that the entire country of China could not have been saved if not for the inclusion of an Irish mercenary plays with the industry’s tired obsession with white bodies coming to the rescue; it can be seen as, quite literally, a white savior film.
What’s not to be dismissed, however, was Tian’s performance, which provided a refreshing female power character who takes Damon under her wing, and the two embody the advantages of bilateralism. She assumes the role of the Order’s commander after the Order’s patriarch General Shao (played by veteran actor Hanyu Zhang, “Assembly” and “The Taking of Tiger Mountain”) is killed (in a quick scene which probably should not have been abruptly cut).
One of the film’s greatest strengths were the spectacular stunts, which are nothing new to the regular viewer of the ‘wuxia’ film genre. Director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”, “Hero”) brings to the mainstream audience dazzling martial arts and impressive stunt choreography really only seen in Chinese film.
“The Great Wall” embodies Hollywood’s shortcomings when it comes to storytelling and casting, but if you can look past that, it’s an amusing two-hour spectacle. But you probably won’t remember it the next day.
“The Great Wall” opens nationwide on Friday, February 17.