Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This monster flick has some legitimately scary moments thanks to well-done 3D effects; the beasts, with their countless teeth and snapping jaws fly out of nowhere and into your face to terrifying effect. Also some cursing; a very lightly implied romantic subplot; and lots of death and destruction in the form of the monsters killing humans, tearing them apart, and eating them. The prevalent CGI keeps the film from seeming so real that it would scare teen viewers, but the violence is too much for younger audiences.
Legendary Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang aims for American audiences with ‘The Great Wall,’ a monster-focused would-be blockbuster. The film is visually astounding and often quite funny, but Matt Damon is an attention-pulling, movie-disrupting miscast.
By Roxana Hadadi
There is so much to praise about “The Great Wall” from Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang: the color palette is stunning; the costumes are exquisite; and the 3D effects are impressively realized. But for a film that honors so much of Chinese culture, the casting of American movie star Matt Damon just feels wrong—from his inability to maintain a consistent accent to a narrative that doesn’t really seem to need him. He actively worsens the movie.
Criticism over the casting of Damon as the film’s main hero has surrounded “The Great Wall” for months now, leading director Zhang to insist that claims of whitewashing are unfounded because Damon’s character was always supposed to be non-Chinese. Perhaps that’s true. But perhaps someone other than Damon could have been cast—someone who can choose an English or Scottish or Irish accent and stick with it; someone who brings more to the role than just a dumbed-down version of Jason Bourne. Damon has action experience, yes, but there is nothing inherently about this character that necessitated he be white. To have a non-Chinese hero in a film about a Chinese legend, and to have that actor fail to do anything particularly unique or engaging in that role, feels like a lost opportunity.
It’s all the more upsetting because “The Great Wall” is often astonishing visually. It’s clear that the film’s budget—rumored to be around $150 million—mostly went into CGI work to create the Great Wall and the legions of mythical beasts that attack it, and the effects all look great. There are so many action sequences here that are, frankly, spectacular: a group of female fighters who fly through the air called the Crane Corps; archery tricks that manipulate your eye one way and then deliver something else another way; and the smoky explosions of gunpowder bombs into a battlefield covered in fog. This is all great stuff! And then Damon pops back up onscreen and you remember he’s in this movie for some reason, and the whole thing goes back to being confusing instead of enthralling.
“The Great Wall” focuses on William (Damon, of “Jason Bourne”) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, of “The Adjustment Bureau”), European mercenaries who have been marauding throughout China in search of mysterious “black powder.” One night their party is attacked by a mysterious beast, whose scaly, greyish arm William chops off; the next day, when they unexpectedly arrive at the Great Wall of China—5,500 miles long, taking 1,700 years to build—the protectors there are unsurprised by the remnant of the monster.
In fact, the fight against the Tao Tei is what they have been preparing for the last 60 years, explains Commander Lin (Tian Jing), the head of the all-female Crane Corps, who are just one part of the Nameless Order. For hundreds of years, the Order has fought the Tao Tei and protected the rest of China from these beasts, who look like iguana/hyena hybrids with humongous mouths and who serve a gigantic queen who communicates with them electromagnetically. They’re monstrous embodiments of greed who only want to eat and destroy, and if they pass through the Wall, they’ll be unstoppable.
In the midst of this battle arrive William and Tovar, who have differing opinions about what roles they should serve—the former sees the war as an opportunity to redeem a lifetime of selfish deeds, whereas the latter just wants to steal the gunpowder and go far, far away from the Tao Tei. When the fight begins, though, their individual desires take a backseat to the scope of this fight, to the millions of lives that could be affected by the Tao Tei and their ravenous, ruthless appetite.
Damon’s best asset here is his straight-man foil to Pascal, who goes broad in his humor but is goofily endearing: “I haven’t surrendered in a while,” Tovar admits to William, who drily retorts “It’ll come back to you.” Jing holds her own against them both, exhibiting a confident physicality that sells her performance as a seasoned warrior and respected leader. And although the design of the Tao Tei is somewhat derivative of other monsters in film—like the kaiju in “Pacific Rim,” the wargs in “Lord of the Rings,” or the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park”—the final battle scene, which uses numerous aerial shots of them in different formations, is beautifully complex.
Nevertheless, it all comes back to this: There is absolutely no reason for the William character to be European, and every moment Damon is onscreen with his manbun and his shoddy accent work is a jolt out of the narrative. Much is made of the Nameless Order being “secret” and unknown to other citizens, so why not have the character be another warrior of Chinese descent who had no idea about the Tao Tei but who feels compelled to defend his nation? Someone who fits better into this film than Damon, who sticks out and adds very little? “The Great Wall” offers numerous moments of breathtaking beauty and masterful filmmaking, but Damon is a distraction, not an asset.
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