Whitewashing controversy has dogged the Chinese-American co-production “The Great Wall” since its announcement, but the most repulsive element of the movie is its laziness and fear of innovation. As acclaimed Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou’s first English-language film, it proves immensely disappointing — a drab, muddled mess with a few shining moments of beautiful action.
In the past few years, debate over corporate meddling in the artistic process has plagued many films, including “Suicide Squad” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Though a different sort of controversy followed “The Great Wall” during its promotional cycle, the defining characteristic of the movie is an obvious struggle between a visionary director and producers’ demands.
The casting controversy comes from Matt Damon, who stars as William, an 11th-century mercenary from somewhere in Britain. Though it provides a decent historical explanation for his presence, “The Great Wall” devotes an inordinate amount of time to justifying itself and comes off as the filmmakers bending over backward to serve a potential American audience.
The plot of the movie is set in motion when William and his Spanish companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) travel to China in search of gunpowder and come upon the Great Wall of China and a massive medieval Chinese army led by female Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). The army detains the two Europeans upon arrival, and they find another captured Englishman (Willem Dafoe), who also has absolutely no place in this film. From there, “The Great Wall” does not have much of a plot, with most of the story revolving around the Europeans attempting to escape while massive battles against invading hordes of green dragon-monsters rage around them.
The straightforward plot should work to the movie’s advantage, allowing Yimou to focus on his two strengths: character development and action. Unfortunately, both of these fall short, with only Tovar and Lin Mae, the film’s breakout star, providing any heart. Damon’s wooden performance as William continuously weighs it down, as he makes unearned leaps from selfish coward to brave hero.
Director Yimou has an illustrious history of beautiful, colorful films, especially his recent action epics, which set the camera far back and allow the vibrant, inventive fight scenes play out with a sense of gravity. Unfortunately, “The Great Wall” turns Yimou’s style down from a 10 to about a six. Two standout action sequences miraculously made their way into the film — a tense fog battle and a beautiful sequence set in a stained-glass tower — but these are the exception, not the norm.
In a blatant attempt to appeal to Western viewers, the potential visual novelty of the film is abandoned in favor of a style that feels too much like an average superhero film. The army of Chinese soldiers has
color-coded sections, including blue, red and purple soldiers, but the hues are so dim they become difficult to tell apart. The colors, especially subdued in 3-D, look like they were run through an Instagram filter and then edited by the people who made the grim “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
The mediocrity of “The Great Wall” stems from its by-committee creation, with six credited writers and funding from four studios — including one owned by the Chinese state. When many filmmakers from different backgrounds collaborate on a movie, it can either become greater than the sum of its parts or feel like a work divided. “The Great Wall” is the latter, an odd mix of writers ticking off the boxes of American and Chinese studio demands and the beautiful Zhang Yimou film that lies buried beneath it all.
“The Great Wall”
- Rating: PG-13
- Runtime: 103 minutes
- Score: 2.5/5 stars