In The Great Wall, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play a pair of scruffy medieval European mercenaries who journey to the mysterious Far East in search of gunpowder. Damon is taste-testing five or six different flavours of an Irish accent, none of which are helpful when he’s detained at the Great Wall by a small army of colour-coded specialized infantry, The Nameless Order, whose job is to hold back a once-every-60-year onslaught from a legion of extra-terrestrial lizard-dogs called the Taotie.
Based on that premise, you already know whether or not you like The Great Wall. It’s a serviceable monster-movie with a lot of ludicrous action and a solid cast treating the thin material with about as much respect as it deserves. It’s also, some ropey CGI notwithstanding, an extraordinarily handsome film. The director is Zhang Yimou, who only has two broad modes as a filmmaker, but slots The Great Wall neatly alongside his Wuxia offerings like Hero and House of Flying Daggers as a sumptuously-colourful, tastefully-presented and immaculately-shot exercise in gonzo patriotic bombast. He’s still putting in work for the homeland, but this time with the full weight of the West’s movie-marketing machine powering his artistic excesses.
And that is why The Great Wall is fascinating to unpack as a pop-cultural and geopolitical curiosity rather than a so-so genre movie. From the moment Damon’s character was first revealed, looming over the poster with imperialistic smoulder, The Great Wall was widely condemned as yet another example of colonialist cultural-adoption; good old Mighty Whitey, as seen in such movies as The Last Samurai, Avatar and about a thousand others, arriving on the shores of a distant land to right the wrongs of its natives. Some people – myself among them – had the audacity to suggest that, based on the available evidence, the judgement might be a bit hasty. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, there’s a little more going on here than can be reasonably deduced from a single poster. Call me crazy – a lot of people did, among some other unsavoury things, such as “racist” and “white supremacist” – but perhaps we shouldn’t judge a piece of art in its entirety based on a single promotional image. I know, I know – such radical, outside-the-box thinking is the reason I’m considered the premiere internet word-writer within about a one-mile radius of my house.
As it happens, we were both right. The Great Wall is unashamedly a flagrant piece of cultural-superiority lite-propaganda that leverages Matt Damon’s comfortable whiteness in order to appease Western audiences. It’s just that the culture being held aloft as superior is fucking China. What a surprise. Maybe The Great Wall being a Chinese-produced blockbuster with a predominantly Chinese cast and a Chinese director that was filmed entirely on-location in China to tell a story steeped in Chinese culture might have been a bit of a clue. Still, I’m not one to gloat.
Besides, it’s undeniable that The Great Wall does abide by the tedious tropes and trappings of a traditional “white saviour” narrative – just with the intention of subverting them as obviously and frequently as possible. Damon and Pascal are consistently characterised as mucky foreign interlopers, from their dowdy attire, to their slovenly behaviour, to their dishonourable Western values. Their arcs, such as they exist, are about abandoning their self-serving amoral thinking and embracing the disciplined efficiency of these brave Chinese warriors. None of this is remotely subtle. Damon and Pascal look like a couple of tramps, whereas the Nameless Order strut around in wonderfully overdesigned technicolour battle-armour, all while being selflessly heroic and chastising the white dudes for their barbarism. There’s even a subplot in which Pascal and Willem Defoe try and nick all the Great Wall’s stockpiled gunpowder while the Chinese characters are busy saving the world.
Matt Damon is the audience’s point-of-view character, and The Great Wall’s story only exists for us to delight in him telling it to us, but that story isn’t about him; he’s a privileged bystander who gets to witness and relay the real story of Jing Tian as Jin Mae, the leader of the Nameless Order’s bungee-jumping, spear-fighting Crane division. And she is unequivocally the heroine of the picture. She isn’t Damon’s love interest. She isn’t a scrappy woman proving her worth to sceptical peers. She’s smart, commanding and capable, and whenever Damon isn’t busy marvelling at Chinese technological ingenuity, he’s busy marvelling at her. The character doesn’t possess enough dimensions for Tian to fold it into something truly memorable, but her screen presence carries the talky parts of The Great Wall almost on its own.
Not that it’s too much of a burden. The Great Wall’s plot and character writing is extraordinarily flimsy; the action sequences are frequent and enjoyable, but they’re balanced on a rickety structure that occasionally seems as though it might collapse. The whole thing never quite descends into catastrophe, but there are more than a few hairy moments. You’d think a movie like this would be immune to incoherence, and it mostly is, but the greatest sin a piece of popular media can commit is being boring, and whenever The Great Wall eases off on the monster-skewering that’s the territory it veers towards. There’s enough self-awareness on display here that the movie never ventures too far, but as anyone who grew up working-class knows, you only need to be stood on the edge of a rough area to end up getting stabbed.
Still, it is what it is. The Great Wall is a perfectly serviceable genre movie that, importantly, is innocent of the charges levelled against it. That’s doesn’t mean it isn’t guilty of other crimes, but it’s nothing serious. You can forgive it. A small fine and a few hours of community service should do the trick, and given that The Great Wall’s Mighty Whitey hero didn’t ensure a decent profit in Western markets, I think it has already paid up.
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