by Benjamín Harguindey
The Great Wall (2016) is ostensibly a Chinese film – it’s directed by Zhang Yimou and is being promoted as the most expensive movie ever made in the People’s Republic – yet it stars Matt Damon in a familiar “white savior” plot reminiscent of The Last Samurai (2004). Turns out ‘Samurai’ director Edward Zwick and writer Marshall Herskovitz are 2 of the 6 screenwriters that penned the screenplay. Figures.
Two mercenaries, William and Tovar (Damon and Pedro Pascal), are on a quest to rob the Chinese of their mythical gunpowder. They stumble upon the Great Wall of China, and as I write this I wonder how do you ‘stumble’ on that 5,500 mile-long behemoth fabled to be viewable from space? They’re taken in by the Chinese army and promptly freed to join them in their fight against the Northern invaders – not the Huns as history would have you believe, but green meanies that look like the Borderlands skags.
That’s about as much context as you’re getting for the movie. William dabbles in an insipid romantic subplot with the beautiful Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and is moved to take the Chinese cause as his own. No reason given, he just stares at the hopeless battle scene and has one of those handy changes of heart. Meanwhile Tovar plots to steal the gunpowder together with another fellow expatriate, one Ballard (Willem Dafoe in a thankless role). He’s obviously a selfish foil to the noble, altruistic Lin, yet looking back nothing of what he does has much impact on the plot at all.
The film flaunts a handsome, elegant production. The way armies file across the wall (their uniforms run the entire rainbow gamut), drummers bang on gigantic zhangu and the female soldiers do swan dives on the monsters (before pulling back up on rudimentary bungee cords) is reminiscent of Yimou’s staging of the 2008 Beijing Olympic ceremonies. On this note there is little to criticize – The Great Wall looks the part of an attractive spectacle. But it is undermined by the absence of nothing much beyond that. The movie simply does not invest on any emotion other than awe, and when it inevitably does go for the routine scenes of death and sacrifice it feels nothing but trite.
To be fair to Damon, he isn’t so much a savior as he is a collaborator (and also a bland attempt to nab the Western demographic). The character of William is a cipher – a merc with a hazy, generic dark past lulled by a chance at redemption. He’s mostly confined to reaction shots where he looks amazed and says “This is amazing“. When he finally does join the fight, he’s hailed and cheered for killing two of the monsters – never mind that the Chinese army slew hundreds of them while he was at it.
Tovar is given more character, if only if that of a stereotype – a Spaniard that taunts charging monsters with a red cape. He never gets to cry Olé but he does end every other sentence with an amigo. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, but only accidentally so, since most attempts at humor fall flat. He’s given lines like “I didn’t sign up for this!“, for crying out loud.
I mentioned “2 of the 6 screenwriters”. Of the remaining 4, a couple of them are frequent Nicolas Cage collaborators – Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro wrote The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and are helming the third upcoming National Treasure flick. They’re worth mentioning because, bar production scale, this could’ve easily been another Nicolas Cage movie in the vein of Season of the Witch (0211) and Outcast (2014). And The Great Wall could’ve only benefitted from having Nic Cage in the Matt Damon part, for Damon looks between lost and bored amidst all the fanfare. If nothing else, Cage would’ve made this way more interesting.
If you’re interested, the remaining two writers are Max Brooks (author of World War Z, making his screenwriting debut) and Tony Gilroy, a genuinely good script writer who has authord Michael Clayton (2007) and The Devil’s Advocate (1997) before that. Brooks is probably in because he inspired that one scene in World War Z (2013) where zombies pile up on each other to get over a famously insurmountable wall (a strategy they attempt here as well). Gilroy is harder to place in the scene of the crime but was probably hired because of his track record with Damon, having penned every Jason Bourne movie to date.
Ultimately The Great Wall is another bland, checkmark-induced blockbuster that only serves to showcase director Zhang Yimou’s flair for organized spectacle and let the Chinese film industry flex its muscles in the spirit of see-we-can-do-this-too. On that note, apparently the Chinese Communist Party has been hounding Chinese reviewers, citing negative criticism as harmful to the movie industry. Guys, the only thing harmful to your industry is The Great Wall. Next time get one good writer instead of half a dozen washouts and get Nic Cage instead of Damon. He’s cheaper and more familiar with the territory.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).