Movie Review: The Great Wall (2017)
Damon, Jing. Whither Asbaek?
OK, if you're going to try to correct historic wrongs, such as white actors playing Asian parts in Hollywood films, which now goes by the hashtag-ready term #whitewashing, you need to pick your battles. I suppose that’s true of anything—picking your battles—but I think it’s particularly true if you’re relying on other people’s good will and sense of right to win the day. In those types of cases, you can’t afford a misstep. Humanity's good will isn't exactly inexhaustible.
Accusing Matt Damon in “The Great Wall” of white-washing is a misstep. He’s not white-washing anything. He’s green-washing. He’s money laundering.
“The Great Wall” is a joint American-Chinese production, filmed in China, and directed by legendary director Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live,” “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”—need I go on?). Apparently that’s partly why Damon wanted to do the movie—to work with Zhang. It also allowed him and his family the opportunity to live in China for six months. I’m sure he also got paid a buttload.
As for why China wanted him? Money. Prestige. He’s a big international star. He’s Jason Bourne. International box office is currently owned by Hollywood and no one else is even close. There are 134 Hollywood films on the worldwide box office list before the top Chinese film, “Mei ren yu (The Mermaid),” makes an appearance. And most of its money was made in China. It didn’t travel. China wants its movies to travel; they figure having Jason Bourne on board could help.
Indeed, watching the film, I flashed back on all the hack Caucasian actors that used to appear in ’80s Hong Kong flicks and marveled at how far China had come. This far: Americans, such as Constance Wu, now get to call them “anti-Chinese.”
Beijing Olympics all over again
Damon plays William, an—I’m guessing—11th-century mercenary (“I fought for Harald against the Danes,” he says at one point), who travels to China with other mercenaries, including Tovar (“Game of Thrones”’ Pedro Pascal), to bring gunpowder back to Europe. Pursued by Chinese bandits, they come upon the Great Wall of China and surrender to the forces there. It’s better than the bandits.
Good thing. The Great Wall was built in the first place, it’s implied, to keep out the Tao Tie, a species of super-fierce, super-smart, dragon-y lizard-y things, who want to wreak havoc and eat people. They last attacked 65 years ago, and ever since the Chinese, led by Gen. Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin (Jing Tian), have been preparing for their return. Now they’re here. This allows Damon and Pascal to be goggle-eyed witnesses to insane, drumbeat, synchronized archers and spear throwers. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” William asks Tovar. I have. We all have. At the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Which, by the way, was also directed by Zhang.
There are red soldiers (archers, male) and blue soldiers (spear-throwers and bungee-jumpers, female), and, with the help of William and Tovar, the Chinese beat back the Tao Tie once, then twice. All the while, subplots: Damon and Commander Lin make eyes at each other; Tovar wants to get out as soon as possible, and does so with the help of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another westerner who’s been trapped there for 25 years; and William bucks up a young Chinese recruit, played by Chinese pop star Lu Han.
- Pascal is the best thing in the movie. The only time I laughed out loud were because of his line readings.
- William and Tovar are supposed to have a kind of Butch and Sundance vibe, and they almost manage to pull it off. Pascal works but Damon isn’t quite lighthearted enough.
- I’ve never seen Damon act this badly in a movie.
In a way, and not the Constance Wu way, Damon is all wrong for the role. In most of his movies, Damon exudes working-class America—blunt-faced and two-fisted and ham-handed; generally good-hearted but with a bit of a smirk—yet “The Great Wall” takes place before any of that existed. So where is William from? Britain, I guess. From time to time, Damon adopts a slight accent: now vaguely Irish, now vaguely ... Spanish? He has trouble getting his mouth around some of the pompous, classical lines he’s supposed to say. In quiet moments, inside the fortress, he’s not bad; Matt Damon again.
We get an international All-Star cast: Damon and Dafoe (U.S.), Pascal (Spain), and, briefly, Pilou Asbaek (Denmark) and Numan Acar (Turkey). Plus all of the Chinese stars. Really, if anyone should protest, it’s Denmark. Their biggest star this side of Mads Mikkelsen and he gets a walk-on. Tak.
But China ain’t fooling around. They want this. That was Zhang’s point when he defended the movie against the Constance Wus of the world:
In many ways “The Great Wall” is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.
But it wasn’t, and, for whatever reason, the movie is dying in the U.S. It did better in China, but only about half of what “Mei ren yu” pulled in. It’s not a great film so it’s not a great loss. But I admire the attempt of it.