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The Great Wall – Movie Review

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I always thought the Great Wall of China was protection from the Mongol horde. Turns out it was really a defense against huge reptile monsters. Who knew? The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, tells the made-up history of the iconic fortification-turned-tourist-attraction. There’s no allegory here. This is a straight-up monster movie. This movie blends near-constant action with bold, vivid imagery and a fairly simple action movie plot. It’s a little over the top, for better or worse, a little uneven, and not immune to some controversy. This movie is like a rollercoaster – lots of fun if you don’t think about it too hard.

Set in medieval China, the story tracks European mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) seeking gunpowder to bring back to Europe, by fair means or foul. Their efforts are interrupted by intelligent reptile monsters, called taotie, who attack the Great Wall by the thousands. The extensively trained Chinese forces guarding the wall have been preparing for generations for the return of the taotie, and here they are. William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are highly capable fighters in their own right, and contribute mightily to the fight against the taotie, led in part by Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). There’s gunpowder aplenty at the wall, but huge monsters attacking, too. What to do, what to do?

Director Zhang Yimou turns the colors up to 11 in The Great Wall. Backgrounds burst in a range of vibrant hues, as do costumes which compete for visual attention. The effect swings between garish and impressive, often feeling like ostentation for its own sake. Remember when Batman & Robin was so over the top it almost killed the Batman franchise? The Great Wall isn’t that outlandish, but certainly isn’t an exercise in restraint, either. Griping about CGI is popular now that it’s essentially ubiquitous, but I try to be more forgiving in this area. The visual effects in this movie aren’t perfect, but I’m usually willing to let it go. The fee I charge movies for CG forgiveness is a low threshold for things that don’t make sense.

From peculiar character choices and unnecessary exposition to squishy accent work, this film has some warts. As serious a threat as monster invasion is, wearing a battle helmet while washing dishes seems a bit much. Bellyaching aside, the chemistry between William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) is this movie’s most endearing quality. The pair trade charming, though typical, action movie quips in that way that only partners who are also rivals do. Game of Thrones fans will no doubt see shades of Oberyn Martell in Tovar (Pascal), which is perfectly fine with me. Willem Dafoe brings his usual delightful creepiness and Tian Jing, a relative unknown to American audiences, holds her own as a skilled military leader.

Despite going to pretty great lengths to establish Chinese potency in this film, one can still argue that The Great Wall doesn’t do enough to mollify claims of whitewash. On the face of it, shoehorning white guys into medieval China is a pretty obvious example, considering the low tolerance audiences have for whitewash lately. In this case, it’s harder to find someone to blame. With a renowned Chinese director, co-production by China’s largest movie studio, and a strong Chinese female main character, this movie offers a frustrating glimpse into diversity in Hollywood; increased Chinese participation in the making of this monster movie offered only marginal improvement in reversing Hollywood’s tendency to exalt white male actors.

I was ready to cut this movie some slack because the bad guys are huge reptilian monsters and close adherence to the historical record obviously is not on the menu. Monster movie or not, Damon’s heroics can be interpreted as yet another portrayal of white exceptionalism or as heartening cooperation across racial divides. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the takeaway is dependent on whether you believe whitewashing is a problem. People on either side aren’t going to change their minds after watching this movie. For me, introducing fantasy elements to a story otherwise dependent on history isn’t enough.

The Great Wall (2017)
Director:  Zhang Yimou
Studio:  Universal Studios
Genre:  Action, Suspense
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:  February 17th, 2017
Author:  Jason M. Brown
Jason MBrown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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