D’you remember last year when Matt (Jason Bourne)Damon had to defend himself from accusations of what is referred to as “cultural appropriation” after doing a press junket for his movie The Great Wall? The accuser here was TV actress Constance Wu, who clearly only knew two things about the movie: that it was set in ancient China and starred white actor Matt Damon. Of course, it had to be racist casting, right? Trouble was, Wu had not read the screenplay and likely had not looked at the trades before jumping to her conclusions. The Chinese influence behind the camera on this movie is significant, and Damon was hired specifically because of worldwide name recognition. With a budget of $135 million on the line, it made sense to put someone like Damon in the lead role in order to guarantee a healthy global return.
I read Damon’s reactionary defensive comments – and while he’s been hypocritical as recently as last year with his call for the US to “ban guns” (never mind that he, along with many major movie stars, have made a ton of money from fetishing gun violence and its lack of consequence), having to defend himself from a mostly mindless attack was unfair. I don’t particularly want to bring politics into a movie review, but in this case it’s unavoidable. I’m largely apolitical, but it isn’t like I’m insensitive to the changing world in which we live. I do feel it’s an issue that most of the big money movie stars perpetuate a mostly-white studio system, then again, they star in movies that are mostly written by white writers, and the studios hire the talent they think (right or wrong) can put up big numbers. So who’s to blame? Probably everybody, I guess – but that includes black writers who mostly only write black-focused movies. If the goal is to increase the appeal of non white actors, these writers need to expand their commercial horizons. It’s worth noting that most movies that feature non-white actors in starring roles are actually written by white men. Ok, topic change: back to the movie.
In The Great Wall, Matt Damon plays William, a mercenary seeking to recover the infamous “black powder” and sell it to the West. Scouring the Far East with a small band of fellow mercenaries, William and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, famed for playing the doomed Prince Oberyn on Game Of Thrones) are the two survivors when a creature attacks. Taking a monstrous amputated limb with them, they come across The Great Wall, and are immediately captured. From talking to the giant army, they find that the creature who attacked them is one of a teeming horde of creatures who attack the wall every sixty years. The bulk of the movie is about William and Tovar (mostly William) assisting the army in defending the wall, and to be frank, it’s not a good movie at all.
I’m not a huge fan of Asian movies, it has to be said. Not that I haven’t liked a number of them, and likely I just haven’t watched enough, but I find them lightweight when it comes to character and plot. The Great Wall was written by a trio of American writers, but director Zhang Yimou is in control of everything else, and the movie mostly looks very nice, and the action sequences are competent enough – the problem for me is that almost everything else was awful. I’ll concede that I might not have been paying attention 100%, but if the monsters attack every 60 years, and it took 1,700 years to build the wall in response to these very monsters, what were the monsters doing all the time the wall remained as a work in progress? And how did one monster (and only one monster) somehow get past the wall in order to attack William and Tovar? It’s established in the movie that the monsters can actually get on top of the wall itself, but why don’t they just jump over the other side? Especially when one’s already been over there. Then there’s the matter of weaponry. We know the monsters attack every 60 years, and that they attack in multiple relentless waves – but each time they attack, the defenders use increasingly more powerful weapons. I guess the logic of not using ALL the arsenal on the first wave was lost on me. Just seemed an excuse to escalate the stakes with as little creativity as possible, but it’s bad writing, and phony and fake drama. Not exactly a Deus Ex Machina, but it’s almost as lazy. There were stylistic touches that bugged the hell out of me too. I can understand coordinated military strikes, but for the life of couldn’t get why the drum beaters appeared to be performing a stage routine like this:
So yeah, lots of problems with this movie, including Damon himself. He just flat out looks like he took the job to pay for a new house. He looks out of shape and plays the role with a kind of detached, uninterested expression through most of the movie. I mostly like Damon, but I prefer when he shows up for work. He didn’t on this movie. But the biggest problem I had was with the monsters themselves. Terrible, terrible design. The things are as big as cars, and kind of look like what you’d get if you threw a frog and a boar into a telepod and hit the blend button. The monsters of course have a leader, the (yawwwwwn) Queen, that you know is going to be the focus of Act 3, and there’s also some badly written mumbo jumbo about how the movie’s maguffin (and an ill-conceived one at that) can somehow block the Queen’s telepathic command system which I can just about bite on, but the actual end of the movie shows a shocking vulnerability within the horde that had me shaking my head at, and muttering, “Rubbish!” Really, it took 1,700 years to find this vulnerability?! Why?
And then I realized: they never had a white guy to help them before. I guess Constance Wu was right after all.