The Great Wall
Comments have been made about a Caucasian taking part in a Chinese legend. The gist of the complaint questioned why a white guy is in the story at all. (Hello! Probably because the story is about a white guy, a thief and mercenary, who comes of age a bit late in life.) Matt Damon’s manner of understated acting is an added bonus in the fantasy-slash-action adventure film genre, where characters tend to gnaw every available inch of scenery. (Insert eye roll here.)
Another relief while watching was the judicious use of blood spatter. Typically, buckets of red are splashed everywhere. Injuries and dismemberments happened, but were quick and not gratuitously gruesome. (IMHO that’s a sign of poor screenwriting and direction. Can’t think of something original, so let’s throw some blood and gore at it. Yawn.)
China has the resources, dedication, and centuries of exquisite cultural artistry to create visual beauty. (Who can forget the magical bamboo forest scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?) Asian films tend to overwhelm with their vast casting and equally massive production budgets. Sometimes it gets a bit much, but this film is a perfect example of controlled excess. American made fantasy and sci-fi films tend to compensate with over the top graphics. Sometimes it’s done well. For me, the best work in US productions are the Star Wars films. (I do not include Rogue One. The facial reconstruction at the end, and you know what I mean, was absolutely creepy!)
Keeping that in mind, some things can be overlooked and others can’t, such as blatantly sloppy production work. There is none of that silliness in The Great Wall. The costuming is gorgeous, lavish colors for the different military divisions in contrast to the utilitarian and coarse armor of the round-eyed mercenaries, which in subtext, illustrates the honorable character of the Chinese and the utter lack of elevated values in the white mercenaries. A nice touch, that.
In current fantasy filming, it often boils down to the graphics. The scenic design in this film was laid out on the sort of grand scale only Asian films are able to financially create. Large scale graphics require discipline and a monumental effort in teamwork, and this film did it well. Compare it to the childish and cheesy backgrounds in Gods of Egypt and the absolutely horrible mess of the chariot horse somehow landing up in the stadium seating and trampling the audience in the flimsy remake of Ben Hur.
There was only one weak point in the story and to explain it involves a major spoiler. It’s not worth the fuss since it comes near the end and doesn’t ruin the whole. Artistically, I came away satisfied and impressed, even encouraged. The protagonist followed through on the classic story arc of personal change. A nation’s resolve to protect itself, to sacrifice to save others, to stand with courage and determination in the face of impossible odds is a familiar theme in fantasy. This film brought it to life—showed the meaning of honor and integrity to oneself and others—attributes sadly absent in our present political climate and culture of films exemplifying antiheroes smashing up the scenery and crashing cars. The Great Wall gives us real heroes, men and women, Asian and Caucasian, who give all they have to protect others and do their duty, as our military does today—our last vestige of national honor. This film is a reminder that it still exists in some of us. I left refreshed.