The Great Wall built on star power, not strong foundation

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The most expensive movie ever made in China is a historical-fantasy-action saga directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian and a horde of ravenous CGI beasts.

Is it good? Well, no. But at times it possesses the kind of nutty magnificence you might expect from Chinese master Zhang lending his practiced, elegant hand to what is essentially a hyper-inflated B-grade monster-movie.

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Matt Damon

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Matt Damon

Zhang, who has helmed such wuxia films as House of Flying Daggers and Hero, as well as dead-serious dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, does what he can with this massive American-Chinese co-production, which, like many recent international blockbusters, is less about global culture and more about global capital and the pragmatic mixing of Asian money and Hollywood stars.

This relationship may be financially practical, but it can also be awkward and unwieldy (like that point in Transformers 4 when the action suddenly and arbitrarily moves east). In the case of The Great Wall, it’s a shotgun-movie marriage not helped by a strained script and stiff “epic-style” acting.

Damon plays European mercenary William, who is first seen traversing the dangerous Gobi Desert with fellow fighter Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones). Drawn to Song Dynasty China by rumours of the terrible power of gunpowder, they are hoping to make their fortune as medieval arms dealers when they are captured by the Nameless Order, a fearsomely armed and ferociously skilled military force tasked with protecting the Great Wall from attack by… what, exactly?

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<p>Junkai Wang as The Emperor.</p>
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<p>Junkai Wang as The Emperor.</p>
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<p>In a violent, gorgeously preposterous action sequence, we watch through William and Tovar’s amazed eyes as the soldiers prepare to battle the taotei, basically insatiable and extremely ugly dragons that periodically try to swarm the Wall, eating everything in their way.</p>
<p>William, who starts out as a not-my-fight loner, is eventually won over by the stern — and very beautiful — example of Commander Lin (<em>Police Story 2013’s</em> Jing Tian).</p>
<p>There have been charges of whitewashing: Why should the Chinese need Matt Damon to defend the Great Wall, after all? And Damon himself seems a little abashed. No matter what he’s doing, the Bourne star tends to retain a certain all-American “captain of the lacrosse team” vibe, and he struggles to play a period character in a large-scale saga in which people say things like “Die well, brother.”</p>
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<p>Willem Dafoe as Ballard.</p>
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<p>Willem Dafoe as Ballard.</p>
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<p>Damon does get a lot of screen time, but this is not exactly a “white saviour” narrative. From the viewpoint of the Nameless Order, William and Tovar are basically barbarians. They arrive at the Wall filthy, smelly, greedy and lacking in any kind of moral code, having fought under the flags of a dozen masters for food or money.</p>
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Though the film’s scripters are American, it’s made clear that the battle against the taotei will be won not with William’s Western-style individualism but with the traditional Chinese values of teamwork, duty, self-discipline, sacrifice to the greater good and all-round technological awesomeness.

The cast is also more balanced than the Damon-centric movie posters suggest. While the European characters speak English, there’s also a lot of dialogue in subtitled Mandarin, spoken by such Asian stars as Zhang Hanyu and Eddie Peng, as well as Chinese-born K-Pop star Lu Han.

Ultimately, though, the characters, European and Chinese alike, are flat and predictable. While the battle scenes will offer some compensations, especially for anyone missing the orc action from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Great Wall doesn’t really hold up.

This is a humongous movie built on flimsy foundations.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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The Great Wall
Starring Matt Damon and Jing Tian
Grant Park, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
14A
91 minutes
Two and a half stars out of five

The Great Wall would probably be a lot more culturally offensive if it wasn”t such a complete trainwreck.

— Brian Truitt, USA Today

It”s less of a white saviour trope than a story of a white American who realizes that China is super awesome.

— Scott Mendelson, Forbes

Like the myth that the real Great Wall can be seen from space, The Great Wall visibly crumbles into absurdity.

— Elias Savada, Film International

The Great Wall, while big, brash and achieving cross-cultural understanding on only the most basic level, shows the director”s flair for visual grandeur.

— James Marsh, South China Morning Post

The Great Wall is easily the least interesting and involving blockbuster of the respective careers of both its director and star.

— Clarence Tsui, Hollywood Reporter

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