When trailers started popping up online for The Great Wall, the new film from Zhang Yimou, the movie was instantly lambasted with charges of whitewashing. The film’s star, Matt Damon, was seemingly out of place in medieval China. Now that the film has been released, it’s clear that some of those early criticisms were a bit hyperbolic and ignored a greater issue: The Great Wall’s staggering ineptitude. It’s a piece of nationalist Chinese propaganda masquerading as an incompetent action flick.
The movie telegraphs its mediocrity in the opening seconds, which feature computer generated aerial images of Chinese landscapes zooming below. The quality of the CG is troubling—if there’s one thing that computer generated effects can do flawlessly, it’s landscapes. The fact that a $150 million film can’t get something this simple right in its opening moments indicates greater problems to follow.
We’re introduced to the European leads, mercenaries searching for gun powder, as they’re being chased by Mongolian bandits. William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) manage to separate from the group and evade the bandits. Zhang Yimou is often credited for his ability to film epic martial arts battles, but he falters when it comes to filming simple conversations. The fireside chat between the mercenaries is done exclusively in claustrophobic close-ups that prevent the conversation from unfolding naturally. It also allow us to see how unrealistic their fake beards look.
In the middle of the night, some kind of lizard creature ambushes the men, killing everyone but William and Tovar. William chops its hand off and the beast plummets over the side of a cliff. The next day, the two survivors come upon the Great Wall, where they’re captured by Chinese soldiers. The soldiers all wear colorful, stylized armor that would be more appropriate for a superhero film than a movie that takes place during the Song dynasty.
The soldiers guarding the wall are part of the Nameless Order, which is a bit too on the nose, as most of the Chinese actors are cursed with bland and rudimentary parts. Commander Lin (Jing Tian) has the most screen time among the Chinese, but we never dig into her story or learn what motivates her beyond unthinking patriotism.
William and Tovar are valuable prisoners thanks to the severed lizard hand William has been toting around. The same kind of creature that ambushed them is preparing to attack the Great Wall, and William’s fighting prowess might be worthwhile. When we finally see the creatures in the daylight, they look like a mix between a monitor lizard and the xenomorph from Alien, with eyeless, phallic heads. The beasts, called Tao Tei, are led by a queen who resembles a green, ‘roided out version of the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Once the monsters arrive, The Great Wall transforms into a series of action set pieces, which are only slightly more interesting than what precedes them. Yimou seems more invested in these highly choreographed battles than any of the talkie stuff that precedes them. But battle sequences are made interesting by featuring characters that we care about, and none of the Chinese fighters have anything to distinguish themselves. Even good old familiar Matt Damon can’t inspire any interest.
The film, which was largely financed with Chinese money and shot completely in mainland China, becomes more of an ode to that nation’s military might and storied history than a competent action/fantasy film. When William and Tovar are taken prisoner at the wall, they marvel at the scale of the army and its weaponry. Later, when William confesses to Commander Lin that he fights for whoever will feed him, she’s offended by his lack of national pride. It’s clear that protecting the wall is her greatest concern, but the scene will ring hollow for those who’ve come to fear the side effects of rampant patriotism and nationalism.
The film also takes a jab at China’s history of monarchy. When one of the Tao Tei are captured, a flunky of the emperor foolishly has the creature brought back to the palace in the capital, which leads the remaining beasts to its location. The emperor’s few scenes paint him as an immature teenager; when William and the Nameless Order rescue him, he’s cowering behind his throne in terror, rather than leading his country.
It’s impossible to completely discount charges of whitewashing in The Great Wall, but there’s also a degree of nuance that has been missing from most discussions of the film prior to its release. Matt Damon’s presence is designed to appeal to Western audiences, but it’s in the context of a film directed by a Chinese man, financed by Chinese investors, made in China, and primarily intended for Chinese audiences. Despite the film’s pitiful performance in the US, it’s made a sizable profit in China. It’s also a film of pure fantasy, not some kind of historical epic where White men have been opportunistically inserted in China’s history. Even the film’s screenplay seems designed to appeal to Chinese authorities. It’s unlikely that the writers (six people are credited with screenplay or story) would have any reason for their overt praise of Chinese military might or clumsy digs at its pre-communist past.
There’s so much wrong with The Great Wall that Damon’s presence is mostly an afterthought. The film fails far more spectacularly with its mindless action sequences, harebrained story, and stiff-as-a-board acting. The saving grace of The Great Wall is how forgettable the movie is. Even if you’re unlucky enough to see the film, the memory will be short-lived.