There’s probably some political climate where The Great Wall – a Chinese-American coproduction that’s largely about the greatness of a large national boundary against a horde of invaders – would be more palatable. Just a hunch. But between that particular issue and the controversy surrounding the film’s hiring of the decidedly non-Chinese Matt Damon as the lead, The Great Wall is coming out at a time where it seems destined to fail, at least here in the U.S. Does it deserve to go down in flames? Eh. The reality is a bit complicated.
The Great Wall is set during the Song dynasty, and follows William (Matt Damon), who’s made a perilous journey to China in search of a fabled substance – “black powder.” With the exception of Tovar (Pedro Pascal), everyone who joined William on the journey has been killed en route. The two find themselves at a vast wall, where they encounter an army of warriors known as the “Nameless Order.” Their mission is to protect China against the Tao Tei, grotesque monsters who hurl themselves at the wall like clockwork every 60 years.
On a visual level, The Great Wall is filled with director Zhang Yimou’s brilliant use of color. He’s established the Nameless Order with beautifully designed armor that’s color-coded for different skills: black for foot soldiers, red for archers, and blue for the crane warriors led by Lin Mae (Jing Tian). But the technical proficiency of the film doesn’t really matter so much when the story itself pulls everything else down. There’s nothing unpredictable about what happens here, and the characters are barely even that.
That includes Damon, who gives quite possibly the worst performance of his career. His character is apparently supposed to be Irish, but you’d be forgiven for not guessing that based on his erratic accent. To save Damon from one incoming criticism, though, the film’s not whitewashing a character to include him. There is some white-savior complex going on here, as a result of Zhang wanting to cast a Western actor to broaden the film’s appeal outside of Asia. All that casting Damon does is show why trying to appeal to a global audience is a dangerous idea on a creative level.
Narratively, the film has some interesting conceptual ideas it wants to present: the idea of being part of a collective being greater than individualism, the greatness of the East versus the dangers of the West, etc. But in its efforts to appeal to that aforementioned global audience, these themes are just surface level. All that’s left is a CGI spectacle that diminishes the work of a director who’s usually more fascinating in his work.