Monday, May 29, 2017

The Great Wall: A Review


Mao Damon...

China, for better or worse, is now the de facto market Hollywood wants to reach.  This lucrative market is what the studios will now cater their films to, whether it is in terms of subject matter (such as removing any reference to Tibet in Doctor Strange or changing the villains from Chinese to North Koreans in the Red Dawn remake) or in terms of audience interest (it is no coincidence that such films as Pacific Rim, Independence Day: Resurgence, or Doctor Strange all featured Hong Kong or Chinese characters in major roles, sometimes down to hiring major Chinese stars known in China but unknown outside).

The Great Wall is, in my view, the most overt, blatant effort to make a film for China while pretending it is for Americans.  Leave it up Matt Damon, a man who loves lecturing others about his own wisdom, to spearhead this elaborate spectacle.  The Great Wall is pretty to look at, but logically questionable, dull, and gives us some massive Damonsplaining that would be laughable if it weren't idiotic.

Western explorers William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) go to the mysterious East in search of the mythical 'black powder', that secret weapon the Chinese have.  After escaping some marauding criminals, they are captured at The Great Wall itself, but Commander Lin (Tian Jing), the only female Commander and one of only two Asians who can speak English, has little time to worry about these barbarians. 

Whatever is outside The Great Wall is coming, and they have to keep them out.

We soon learn what is laying siege to The Great Wall, and what lengths they will go to keep them out.  They are the Tao Ties, monsters that spring forth every sixty years.  Fortuitously, William and Tovar arrive just as the TT are coming, and even better, William has earlier managed to slay one.  The Chinese are intrigued by William's archery skills, but suspicious of these foreign devils.

As to how Commander Lin learned English, it is thanks to Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another foreigner who has been held prisoner for 25 years.  He too came as a mercenary for the black powder, but now with these two fellow Europeans he feels he might not just escape, but escape with black powder.

For his part, William either decides to help the Chinese against the Tao Ties or be the white savior they have not been waiting for but whom they were in need of, depending on your view.  William's archery skills as well as a magnet he had with him might make it easy for the Chinese to defeat the Tao Ties, especially with him becoming an unofficial Commander. 

They do capture one, and with it perhaps a way to defeat the Tao Tie Queen (the one they need to kill to end the menace), but leave it up to higher-ups at Court to want to inadvertently undermine the European William.  It's now a desperate race to save China while Tovar and Ballard are plotting their own machinations, and only the clumsy Chinese soldier Peng Yong (Lu Han) can help to bring things together.

In the end, the Queen is defeated (taking most of the Forbidden City with her) and William and a perhaps repentant Tovar go back to Europe, with a tale to tell.

I find it fascinating that The Great Wall could have a lot going for it and botch it up again and again. One would think that a movie with monsters and a foreign setting (foreign to non-Chinese anyway) would be filled with action.  However, The Great Wall dragged itself down by trying to be so breathtaking that it only made people question points of logic. 

For example, Commander Lin was I believe in charge of the Cranes, a group of female-only elite squad that dived down elaborate ramps to spear the monsters.

From the look of it, however, it seemed such a ridiculous and wasteful use of the Cranes: these women essentially taking jabs at these monsters before being swallowed up by the Tao Ties.  It is laughable, and it isn't the last time something comes across as unintentionally hilarious.

Worse, parts that were meant to be hilarious looked dumb.  Little Peng Yong, I figure, was meant as some form of comic relief, but in The Great Wall, he just came across as dumb.  Why would he continue to wear his uniform after being sent off to wash dishes in the kitchen (and wear an apron over said uniform)?  Why would he be sent away to wash dishes (or peel potatoes, to be honest I was dropping off and the film was a bit opaque at the time to tell) just for dropping some paint?

Other points of logic come from Ballard (and poor Dafoe looked as if he had been essentially forced to make the film and wanted to be anywhere else but there).  It's fortunate that he spoke English, for imagine if Ballard had been French, or German, or Italian, and had taught Lin those languages. 

This is a perfect Segway into Damon's performance.  We know where Tovar is from (he's a Spaniard) and we figure why Lin speaks English with a Chinese accent (though she speaks it extremely well).  We however, can't figure where William exactly is supposed to be from.  Damon's accent spreads across the continent, wandering hither and yon to where it becomes an amusing guessing game which part of Europe he originated from.

I figured he was Welsh, Scottish, British, Irish and maybe some pan-Europa, with a dash of America. Damon should never have tried for an accent, showcasing his limitations as an actor (though he did have an obligatory shirtless scene to show off a buff 46-year-old body). 

Furthermore, while his performance was amusing for all the wrong reasons, his reason for being there makes one wonder whether Damon is a proponent of Kipling's 'white man's burden' worldview.  William is not so much converted to help his former captors as he is driven by a mad desire to show them how to get things done right.

Watching The Great Wall, he is an embodiment of the white savior, the figure who leads the non-Caucasians to knowledge and victory without whom they could not have achieved it.  The fact that Damon already has a reputation for holding himself intellectually superior on the subject of race and racial diversity against those who are actual minorities does not help matters.

Is it a case of Elysium Revisited?

I can't say much for the Chinese actors, who apart from Jing and Han weren't big enough storywise to care about, but I figure they appealed to the actual target audience of the film.  As for Pascual, it is interesting that the film wants us to see them as friends when the characters don't seem to at times even be on speaking terms.  Their 'witty banter' is forced and obvious, but it is hindered by the fact that Tovar and William seem thrown in together and don't appear to be real friends.

In other matters, the film was filled with pretty colors for the costumes (all solids that popped out at you), but the monsters were rather boring and the stabs at being 3-D worthy were painfully obvious in 2-D.

The Great Wall is boring, a bad thing to be regardless of what language a film is in.  Apart from some lavish costumes, there is nothing there to be of any interest.

Had Chairman Mao seen The Great Wall, he would have called for a Second Cultural Revolution and killed a few more millions of people.  Even HE would concede that The Great Wall was a Great Leap Backward.     


1 comment:

  1. Haha, great review, I enjoyed the read! I could see this being one of those movies that I never actually bother to getting around to watching. Certainly won't be seeking it out!


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