Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem DaFoe. Action/Fantasy. Directed by Yimou Zhang. Synopsis: Two European mercenaries are in the Far East in search of the new invention of gunpowder when they encounter and kill a strange lizard like beast. Afterwards, they approach the Great Wall of China and are first captured by the defending army and subsequently enlisted to help the defending army against an onslaught from a legion of meat ending beasts.
I know this one took a bath, at least at the U.S. box office, when considered with its budget and expectations. I had the pleasure of taking this one at the theater. The first thing I will say is that, visually, it is excellent, if not stunning in some parts. In addition to being the first thing that I would say about The Great Wall, it is also the best thing I can say.
Now, let’s tackle the elephant in the room right off the bat. There was a lot of chatter about this movie prior to its release. A lot of that chatter was in the critical form stemming from the very real issue of “whitewashing” in Hollywood movies. Briefly described, that is when a – usually – Caucasian actor is put in a role that is based on, from either source material or historical perspective, an Asian or other nonwhite character. What makes that such an issue, from this view point, is the fact that we almost never see the reverse. (For some, even the thought of that is too much.) As such, claims of artistic interpretation or box office appeal often fall, justifiably in my view, on deaf ears.
So,this is where you likely expect me to start ragging on this movie for the casting of Matt Damon (Contagion The Informant!) as William, the medieval mercenary from the West who comes East to basically show all our native Asian characters how to defend themselves as well as feel good about this impressive wall they’ve somehow managed to build despite being, presumably, technologically inferior to their implicitly superior Western European counterparts, right? Well, no, I’m not going to do that. You know why?
No, it’s not because I’m a Damon fan. It’s because it doesn’t happen in this movie. If anything, the film clearly shows and/or implies the native Chinese to be ahead of the West: technologically as well as in terms of military tactics and nebulous social issues, such as the role of women in leadership.
Damon is the big-name actor and, yes, the story unfolds largely through the eyes of his character. But, make no mistake, he is not the one who drives this piece, nor is his performance the outstanding one here. That designation goes, without question, to Tian Jing (Kong: Skull Island), whose Commander Lin Mae is the vital protagonist.