The buzz on “The Great Wall” has been less excitement and more puzzlement and controversy. What project required Matt Damon to rock that man bun for years? Why does the poster for a movie called “The Great Wall” (as in China) have a huge picture of a white guy on it? All is now revealed, and “The Great Wall” defies any expectations: It’s absolutely bonkers wild.
The Chinese film market is increasingly influential in Hollywood, with Chinese financing flowing to a diverse array of U.S. projects, and studio films increasingly catering to the tastes of Chinese audiences, resulting in more action, more spectacle, more humor. “The Great Wall” seems like a real U.S.-China co-production, featuring Damon, director Zhang Yimou and a screenplay about Chinese folklore credited to a team of Hollywood screenwriters including Ed Zwick and Tony Gilroy.
“The Great Wall” opens with some fun facts about the wall: It’s 5,500 miles long, it took 1,700 years to build (which doesn’t bode well for other potential walls of this ilk) and there are lots of legends. This is just one of them, and it involves Damon fighting space dinosaurs off the Great Wall. China loves monsters (the highest grossing films in China to date are “The Mermaid” and “Monster Hunt”), so monsters they’ll have.
It’s like the battle for Helm’s Deep in “Lord of the Rings,” but with hordes of slobbering reptilian hyenas with T-Rex heads instead of orcs. They were delivered to northern China via meteor, and they attack every 60 years as a reminder that unchecked greed is bad. They have a queen, and she’s hungry all the time.
Damon plays William, a Western mercenary with a garbled accent (is it Scottish? Irish? Is that a hint of Spanish?), who, in searching for “black powder,” is taken prisoner by an impressively costumed army at the wall, and ends up fighting alongside them, much to the chagrin of his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal).
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There’s a lot of fun to be found here. Zhang’s visual signatures are present: audacious color design, billowing fabrics, dizzying camera work, high-flying acrobatics. The initial display by the Chinese army is so impressive – giant crossbows operated by soldiers in dazzling crimson; drummers whipping commands into war skins with blue tassels; a high-flying brigade of cerulean-armored, spear-throwing female warriors – that the interlopers just watch in awe. Of course, they can’t help but eventually butt in with their Western mavericking (Pascal actually bullfights one of the monsters).
After the first act, it’s a bit downhill, focusing less on impressive army maneuvers and more on rote interpersonal motivations coupled with silly schemes involving magnets and hot air balloons. But when it comes to heroics, “The Great Wall” is refreshingly egalitarian. Damon’s character is less “white savior” and more “white helper,” with Lin (Tian Jing) emerging as our hero – poised, talented, a great ponytail. She’s a platonic equal to William, and in this world, there’s no reason women can’t be warriors.
The period-fantasy genre allows for representations, metaphors and messages that are currently relevant, about the benefits of cultural interchange – the controlled order of the Chinese army meets the individualistic fighter, and they’re stronger together – but also about ruthlessly unchecked greed, and the fallible nature of walls.
starring Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal and Hanyu Zhang. Directed by Yimou Zhang. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. Running time: 1:43