Overview: Two mercenaries stumble upon the Great Wall of China and discover a secret military order tasked with fending off a horde of monsters that attack every sixty years. Universal Pictures; 2017; PG-13; 104 minutes.
Two Westerners Walk Up To A Wall: “What God made these things?” Tovar (Pedro Pascal) asks William (Matt Damon) after they experience the first of many brutal attacks upon the Great Wall by the Taoteis, a horde of creatures which rises from the earth every sixty years or so. “None that we know,” William shoots back. It’s a brief exchange to highlight the characters’ otherness and their own awareness that they are the culturally intruding party here. Of course, most of us already knew that.
The current film culture, which, for better or worse (it’s usually worse), thrives on (joyless) pre-release feeding frenzies of speculation and preconceived notion, which often dictates where front line reviewers of the film almost have to start. The Great Wall marks another one of those recent movies which, because of its early marketing material, sparked intense evaluative conversation prior to the film’s even being released. And given the posters and trailers side-eye-worthy positioning of Matt Damon, the film’s white, A-list Hollywood star, at their forefront and the justifiably intense pushback leading up to The Great Wall‘s opening, it’s hard not to watch director Zhang Yimou’s setup with a weary and wincing gaze.
The opening of the film centers on a group of Western mercenaries, indeed lead by Matt Damon’s William, trying to stay alive. A series of events lead Tovar and William to approach the Great Wall and it is through their imprisoned observation that we observe and learn about The Nameless Order, a military entity commissioned by the Imperial Court of the Song Dynasty to stand in defense against this ancient enemy. But, once William reveals that he and Tovar have already dispatched of one of the monsters to the somewhat astonished reaction of General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and all of the attending soldiers, triggering a groanworthy moment in which it almost seems certain that William really is going to be the film’s savior, the two Westerners are figuratively and literally bound to a more observational function.
When the meat of the movie starts, that is, when the horde makes its initial attack – and it happens rather quickly; The Great Wall accelerates at the best breakneck pace since Mad Max: Fury Road even if its machines lack the same horsepower – Zhang disables Tovar and William from battle and story to frame a jaw-dropping sequence of smitten cinematic adoration for the operative efficiency of The Nameless Order and the ingenuity of the machinations within their wall. The army’s elemental cooperation is an organic extension of the Rube Goldberg weaponry of their architecture. While Yimou choreographs breathless sequences of swan-diving spear fisherman (or rather, fisherwomen), giddily impossible archery physics, and just-for-the-hell-of-it flaming cannon launchers fired with sniper-like accuracy, the two handcuffed Westerners punctuate the director’s fondness of his own choreography with their mesmerized dialogue, which helps establish the color-coded segments of the unified front. In contrast, once they free themselves, the two pre-cowboy cowboys then break free and go to battle with a single Taotei, ultimately coming out victorious in a fight that is still well framed, but far less clean and less cinematically engaging.
Afterward, the film keeps the battle sequences coming regularly, and only William becomes an active and willing participant in these battles, but never in a way that positions him as a teacher of some learned maneuver or psychology that they were missing. The Last Samurai this is not. So it begs the question, why the need for the white guy at all? Is Matt Damon’s role really that of boosting the interest of ethnocentric American audiences with known Hollywood appeal? Could the story not work as a tale of the un-infiltrated efforts of The Nameless Order to win the war and save their country? The answer to these questions, I think, might preserve The Great Wall as a perpetually evaluated and eventually elevated piece of pop cinema.
And It Turns Out They Were Really Okay Dudes: The Chinese-born Zhang opens the film with a satellite view of Earth, a presentation recalling that oft-repeated piece of trivia about the Great Wall being the only man-made structure that can be seen from space, before putting up two pieces of information: the length of the wall and the time it took to build. Midway through the film, I realized this second measurement, 1,700 years, was a proclamation of licensure. Each battle sequence highlights the discipline, honor, and instinctively selfless unity of the Chinese fighters while subtly highlighting the power-thirsty ambitions and un-noble technique and influence of their Western counterparts. One culture learned not just in the ways of battle, but in the reasons and morality of it, the other culture represented by… just lucky renegades, really.
When Colonel Lin inquires about William’s military history, he explains that his skill is developed by a need to “fight for food. Fight to eat. Live long enough, fight for money.” Colonel Lin (Tian Jing) seems almost disgusted. “We are not the same.” Constantly thereafter, William, Tovar, and Ballard (a third Westerner held at the wall for 25 years, played by Willem Dafoe) are spoken to as if they are toddlers regarding their unimpeachable desire to obtain “black powder” (gun powder) and return to their respective homelands to put the new weapon into power-grabbing practice. Given the context of this half-American-produced film’s release, its controversy, and the current political moment, this feels a little blissfully on-the-nose in its messaging, a critical take down of Western arms races and the American military industrial complex.
I didn’t expect that my first in-review allusion to a film’s being about Trump’s America would be afforded by The Great Wall, but here we are. I was unsurprised to discover that The Great Wall‘s story team included Max Brooks, the author of World War Z, another genre-disguised metaphor of broad political material. Because the first film I thought of to explain The Great Wall through comparison was 1997’s Starship Troopers. Except where Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 brilliant satire offers a first-person, evergreen hot dog factory tour of American militarism, Zhang’s new film offers a comparative third party audit-through-comparison of flimsy American/Western patriotism and our undercooked and often-feigned virtues and expertise. And, as we approach a new cold war with the ultimate outsider cowboy at the helm of the American ship, the message couldn’t have landed at a better, but it couldn’t have arrived in a stranger package.
Overall: Zhang has applied a top dollar budget to an orgiastic B-movie, 150 million to make a Roger Corman dreamscape which juxtaposes sequences of untouchable high cinema (the funeral sequence is chill-inducing and I can not stress enough how much I enjoyed the presentation of Colonel Lin’s Crane Troop diving from the wall) with sequences of laughable CGI presented with no sense of self-consciousness (the monsters are fine in concept, but anything but impressive in presentation, while the hot air balloon ride is just a few notches above The Asylum’s best work), a film that unleashes within a high-minded and gracefully filmed period piece a pulp magazine-worthy monster species and a star who can’t remember his accent from scene-to-scene. It’s all at once silly and intelligent, reckless and graceful, and, even as the film surrenders in allowing William to play a significant late role in saving the people of China (again, only in performative action, not in interruption of culture), it still somehow hosts a complex and prescient culturally comparative essay.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures