To have two cultures come together in production on the big screen makes sense in many ways. Most notably if both countries contribute the largest box office numbers worldwide, like the United States and China. So, having a Hollywood juggernaut of sorts as the main lead teaming up with one of the best directors in China is a smart business move I’d get behind. Though contributing to the reign of the “white savior” stereotype has long had its time, and needs to die. The public is tired of it, as am I, and it was on everyone’s mind when the first trailer dropped. But having such a great director paying respect to the Great Wall of China, with martial arts as its base, put my level of excitement to new levels. It gives you what you want as far as the action, but misses the mark as a full on epic adventure.
Getting this out the way, I’m a fan of Matt Damon. I think he’s a fine actor, and possibly one of the best in the game. Though being one of the best doesn’t mean you’re cut out for everything. The start of this film was an uncomfortable mess of a production, having the white savior play dress up. From his head to toe everything about him was a foul. Named William, there was no depth to his character other than he could fight well and was skilled with a bow and arrow. Trying to survive, he did all that was possible given the circumstances, and the film did attempt to address his true nature and the worldly corrupt ideals he believed in. He had some character growth, but his presence still plagued the film and brought it down from what it could’ve been.
Though having director Yimou Zhang (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower) in control is what got me excited. He always leaves his signature stamp of flow in his productions, and there was no short of that this time around. The amount of precision he used for each detail was apparent from the costume designs and score. It felt as if I was actually on The Great Wall engulfed in all the action. His camera work is right where it needs to be, putting you on the front seat of all the chaos. It was a true spectacle with all the flips and kicks used to choreograph all the fights. The wall was a character itself and comes to life, because they designed the hell out of it. From east to west there were multiple sorts of weapons and tactics led by any army willing to die for the cause, fighting as one unit.
This level of commitment wasn’t used in all layers of the film, and it will probably forever be a mystery why the cgi antagonist were not treated with the same respect. The computer animated lizard monsters were not rendered well in the slightest. Whether it was from a lack of time or money, their final look should’ve had more care. They were a large powerful race, with unique battle tactics, always adapting to what came before; but their final makeup was imposing. They do deserve credit for being a worthy foe, which is not to be underestimated. It was a unique dynamic between the two sides, seeing both fight with all their might to either rule or survive.
In the end if you’re able to remove yourself from the contribution of white supremacy that unconsciously floods Hollywood, you’ll have a great time. Matt Damon being better than an army of warriors that’s trained for thousands of years is rather disturbing, and just wrong. With ease he’s able to slaughter his enemies as everyone else struggles. Fortunately, there is enough of the film that stands on its own to give you the goods. Being an action junkie and a fan of Asian martial arts cinema, I got what I wanted. The final battle was a bit anticlimactic, but knowing to keep my expectations low the feeling of mild satisfaction is present. While addressing the notion of the white savior is still strong, and needs to be abolished, to pretend this film doesn’t still have some redeeming qualities would be another disgraceful lie.