Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
Screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Starring Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han and more
Grade: Three stars
A movie doesn’t have to be imaginative to be satisfying.
Proof of that can be found in “The Great Wall,” the Matt Damon-helmed epic that serves as a unique fusion between American and Chinese-style storytelling. The movie is so predictable that you can practically see the diagram that was used to describe it, but at the same time the tropes are all so effectively made and executed that the results prove surprisingly satisfying. It’s a well-made IKEA bookshelf, as simple as they come but entirely designed to do the task it set out to do.
For those who might have worried about another case of whitewashing, let me assure you that the movie makes it clear that Matt Damon isn’t supposed to be Chinese. He and Pedro Pascal are mercenaries who have come to China seeking black powder, only to stumble across the latest edition of a longstanding war between China and what are strongly implied to be alien monsters.
The movie was assembled together like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces all brightly colored and easily labeled even for the simplest readers. Here is the Hero With A Flawed Past, while next to him is the Charming Rogue. Over here we have the Scared Young Soldier Who Will Later Prove His Bravery, who will no doubt be instrumental in the Moment Of Seeming Betrayal (That Isn’t Really) and The Desperate Last Battle. These are action adventure building blocks at their most basic, completely devoid of any improvisation, ad-libbing or imaginative additions.
But, admittedly, they’re all executed surprisingly well. When an entirely American film indulges so heavily in commonly trafficked tropes, it tends to do so as a near parody, with a healthy dose of cheese, or with enough sheer idiocy that you end up shaking their head. Here, the tropes are executed with utter craftsmanlike seriousness, as if this was the first time Yimou Zhang had ever seen such tropes and wanted to be sure they were presented as well as possible. The reason tropes become tropes is that they’re effective, and when they’re well done they’re as satisfying as meat and potatoes. While I might have preferred more spice, or a sauce or two, what I was given was well cooked.
It also, surprisingly, serves as the first real attempt I’ve seen to blend Chinese and American movie tropes. The romance that is mostly staring is straight out of Chinese cinema, as is the movie’s overall definition of honor and the fact that the government officials were always allowed to redeem themselves from their mistakes. It’s American cinema, however, that contributed the Charming Rogue character and the surprisingly steady string of witty one-liners, as well as the individual loyalty between two people that’s been the mainstay of buddy cop movies for decades.
The one wildly obvious, tragically hilarious flaw in the movie is, unfortunately, Matt Damon’s accent. Though I’ve heard various critics make predictions as to where the character is supposed to originate, the closest I’m willing to guess is somewhere in the British Isles. We don’t get to actually hear enough of it to be sure, with the accent bobbing in and out of the movie like a drowning man that only occasionally manages to surface. It would have been infinitely less distracting to have him simply use his normal voice.
Mostly, though, the movie was surprisingly well-crafted. Imagination would have made it better, but “The Great Wall” still manages to deliver a surprising amount without it.