first_imgHere’s a mediocre movie that’s actually a lot more fun to unpack as a pop-culture “moment” than it is to watch – but, then… it’s also actually pretty fun to watch.The Great Wall is a very, very, very silly movie. The operating premise is that Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal (but really mostly Matt Damon) are a pair of medieval European mercenaries (I think?). They are traveling to the mysterious Far East in search of the magical new invention called “gunpowder” who instead get grabbed up at the Chinese border by The Nameless Order – a specialized top-secret army detachment that maintains The Great Wall of China. While there, they discover that (contrary to history) said Great Wall was built not to repel The Mongols. Instead, it’s built to ward off semi-annual attacks by an army of alien/wolf/lizard monsters that (wouldn’t you know it?) is due to hit a day or so after the two Westerners have arrived.That’s pretty dumb. But it’s also, perhaps, the kind of the “right kind” of dumb. These things are all execution-dependent, obviously; but in its better moments The Great Wall does almost approach a kind of Sinbad-era Ray Harryhausen vibe that I, at least, generally find pretty agreeable. It’s rather far from a “great” version of that, granted – but agreeably serviceable, absolutely.What’s interesting, on the other hand, is the stuff that’s tucked away just under the surface in the form of (decidedly unsubtle) pop-cultural and geopolitical subtext. The discussion of the film in the West has largely focused on its seeming employment of the tedious “White Savior” narrative, a la The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, Avatar and dozens of other well-meaning colonialist cultural-adoption adventures. But while that’s absolutely what The Great Wall wants to be seen as (make no mistake: Western credited-screenwriters or not, this is very much Dailan Wanda-owned Legendary Pictures. Thet are aiming squarely at selling a Chinese-produced blockbuster bearing the unmistakable implicit thumbs-up of China’s state-run film industry to American audiences by centering Matt Damon) what it’s actually doing on a narrative level is a little bit more complicated. To be certain: As a movie, it’s pretty forgettable – but as an artifact of this moment in time it’s actually kind of fascinating.What essentially presented with here is a Chinese cultural-superiority “lite-propaganda” piece dressed-up in the technical trappings of a ‘White Savior’ movie in an attempt to make that aforementioned narrative palatable to an American and/or more broadly Western audience. So while Damon is the audience point-of-view character and he does superficially go through the expected “Mighty Whitey” motions, all told he’s not very much of a hero in the details.Right from the start, Damon and Pascal’s main role for much of the film is to be amazed and impressed by how advanced, and superior the Great Wall itself is, the Chinese characters’ bravery, their ingenuity, how next-level their science and technology is, etc. The Western interlopers are consistently presented as scruffy, slovenly, amoral barbarians compared to the virtuous, handsome, immaculately costumed Chinese heroes. Except of course, for the mincing nobles, whose cowardice is meant to mark the braver Generals as spiritual-ancestors of the People’s Government. This follows the standard tropes for modern Chinese historical-fantasy; right down to the Nameless Order getting gloriously-overdesigned rainbow-colored armor while Damon and Pascal look like they just wandered over from a Mad Max movie.To the degree that Damon’s glorified audience-translator has a character arc to speak of it’s all about unlearning his dishonorable Western values of greed and selfishness and embracing the Chinese values of teamwork and self-sacrifice. We get the expected scenes where he gets bright ideas and rushes into battle to save China, but it always ends up as a group effort and he seldom gets to be the head of the spear. His main contribution to the cause ends up being that he’s accidentally carrying a random object that turns out to be monster-kryptonite – but even then it’s Andy Lau (as the chief military strategist) who recognizes this fact and figures out how to use it.Suffice it to say; there’s a lot going on underneath the otherwise bog-standard monster-siege storyline in the “meta” sense. Unfortunately, even though The Great Wall is aiming to co-opt the cultural-supremacist White Savior narrative in order to play out a different cultural-supremacist narrative of its own. It’s not really trying to “subvert” the trope either, so it can’t help but drag along all the familiar, tedious, problematic baggage that comes with it. However much he’s being undermined as a would-be Western messiah figure, the film can’t quite shake the sense that this story is apparently only important for us to hear because Matt Damon was there to tell us about it. So even if his ultimate role ends up to be providing cover-fire and emotionally-supportive cheerleading to Jing Tian as Jin Mae, a female soldier who is (narrative-wise) the actual hero of the movie.In fact, once his backstory is largely spoken for, Damon’s main job is seemingly to provide English narration for the story of how Jin Mae is elevated from the leader of the Great Wall’s elite all-female bungee-jumping/spear-fighting Crane Division to the General of the entire goddamn operation over the course of the siege. And if there’s a reason to see The Great Wall outside of a cultural curiosity-item, she’s it. Pretty much all of the characters are strictly two-dimensional, but Tian has remarkable screen presence, and it’s decidedly refreshing to see a female action-hero in a movie where the fact of her gender never remotely weighs on the plot and who isn’t a sex object or a love interest. Damon’s character kind of falls in “humbled awestruck respect” with her, while she seems to regard him less like a fellow person and more like a friendly, roughhousing puppy, she’s eventually pleased to have domesticated.Also, Pascal’s character is a Spaniard (I can’t even begin to work out what accent Damon thinks his character is meant to have, on the other hand…) who kills a monster by deploying his mastery of matador bullfighting skills. I just feel like I should mention that this is a thing that happens.So, then, as a pop-footnote to the bigger story of China’s ascension to 21st Century economic and cultural superpower, there’s a lot of intriguing stuff to unpack here. But as a movie? It’s otherwise pretty disposable. The actual story is very bare bones; the characters are all stock-types relying on actor charisma to sink or swim and while the monsters are interestingly designed the CGI used to realize them is not exactly cutting-edge. Plus, since the enemies aren’t at all humanoid, you don’t even get much of the elaborate hand-to-hand combat sequences one can usually count on Chinese action cinema for – which is ultimately a shame since what little we do see feels like a tease for a better movie.On the plus side, it looks gorgeous. Director Zhang Yimou has basically two modes as a filmmaker and artist. The first is intensely personal, poetic meditations (Raise The Red Lantern, Red Sorghum). The second is a bombastic patriotic spectacle “doin’ the job” for the homeland (Hero, the gonzo Christian Bale/Rape of Nanking drama Flowers of War). And while The Great Wall is decidedly on the lesser-end of that less-interesting second category the man sure as hell knows how to paint a pretty picture. There’s a scene of characters sneaking through a literal sewer in the third act of this film that’s more colorful, lovingly presented and immaculately shot than most of this year’s Best Picture nominees. And like I said if it connects it could be a star-making turn for Jing Tian (who, it must be said, is almost alarmingly beautiful even as the film steadfastly refuses to sexualize her character). Especially since she has high profile Western projects in Pacific Rim 2 and Kong: Skull Island coming up next.Overall, judged strictly on its own merits, The Great Wall is an attractive but trivial movie: Pretty but empty, textually-problematic but subtextually-intriguing, worth a look but perhaps not a committed seeking out.last_img

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