Main cast: Matt Damon (William Garin), Jing Tian (Commander Lin Mae), Pedro Pascal (Pero Tovar), Willem Dafoe (Ballard), and Andy Lau (Strategist Wang)
Director: Zhang Yimou
While there are media outlets and bloggers already claiming that The Great Wall is a white savior movie, the truth is a little more complicated than that. Yes, in some ways this is a white savior movie, but in other ways it isn’t.
Anyway, the story first. Our Westerner hero is William Garin. He and his buddy Pero Tovar are among a band of mercenaries who came all the way to this part of China in search of “black powder”, said to be a powerful kind of explosive that will surely turn the tide of any battle and make these men rich when they sell their loot off to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, the hillside tribes are not actually hospitable, and their numbers dwindle until it’s just a handful of them. And that’s before they encounter a strange beast whose attack leaves only William and Pero as the sole survivors. Pursued once again by the hillside tribes, they flee all the way to a garrison at the Great Wall, where they end up prisoners at the worst possible time.
You see, the armies stationed at the Great Wall are called the Nameless Order, and they exist for a singular purpose. Every 60 years, strange beasts called the Taotie (a type of beast loosely based on a mythical Chinese beast of the same name) conduct a deadly assault on China, the Great Wall is the only barrier that keeps the country safe from these beasts. The beasts are getting smarter, however, and on that particular day, William and Pero will be caught in the middle as the Nameless Order and the Taotie army clash.
The Nameless Order comprises several different regiments color-coded for convenience, and the most notable one is the Crane Troops, mostly because they are comprised of only woman and is led by our heroine, Commander Lin Mae. Due to their lighter body mass and agility, these ladies are responsible for the vertical assault along the surface of the wall on the attacking monsters below. As you can see, William and Lin start exchanging deep glances at one another, but he’s here for the black powder, while she’s all about honor and responsibility. He can’t resist playing the hero alongside the Nameless Order, however, and is soon torn between fighting for something that is actually meaningful or staying loyal to his less-than-honorable buddies.
This one is a straightforward big action flick. Don’t think or expect too much, because characterization is paper thin and there is hardly any delving beyond the surface when it comes to the plot. Where do the Taotie come from and why are they attacking China? Why do the Nameless Order adopt the not-so-successful strategies the way they do? I mean, the Crane Troops may look fine when they are in action, but their way of attacking the Taotie is not exactly efficient or even effective, so why bother even doing that? And seriously, what’s with all these flowing capes of the soldiers? I can only imagine the dire consequences if these capes get snagged on someone’s spear or, worse, caught hold of by the enemy. A lot of things in this movie is all about giving a good visual effect or style, so don’t expect much logic either.
If you can overlook all that, you may be, like me, pleasantly entertained by the whole thing. A most unexpected and welcomed surprise is how William isn’t entirely the white savior. Sure, he does have an unexplained superhuman ability to aim and shoot his bow like a boss, and it can get irksome how he seems to be more capable than soldiers who have trained all their lives to fight the Taotie. But at the same time, he doesn’t get to hog all the limelight, and in the denouement, it is he and Lin working side by side every step of the way. If you are familiar with Zhang Yimou’s repertoire, you will know that he likes his kick-ass heroines as much as every other cool people, so Lin is no slouch here. Hence, my earlier statement about how William isn’t exactly a straightforward white savior here – he is just a superhero that happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. While it is possible that China would be lost without him, he wouldn’t have done it either without Lin, so at the end of the day, this one is not a clear-cut reason to get outraged about.
If I do have one complaint – and I dock one oogie for this – it’s the abundance of tired “man versus aliens/monsters” movie clichés littering this movie, right down to the oh-so-played out “kill the queen and everything else just dies, LOL” angle. All these things keep The Great Wall from scaling the heights, instead making this one just another big dumb movie full of fights and explosions. Not that this is a bad thing, of course, as I’ve had fun. But it doesn’t have to be so derivative, surely?