PLOT In 12th-century China, a European soldier helps battle a scourge of monsters.
CAST Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal
RATING PG-13 (gory action)
BOTTOM LINE It may be one of China’s biggest films to date, but it looks and feels like a cheap knockoff.
What is Matt Damon doing in a China-based blockbuster about the country’s most iconic work of architecture?
Some have said Damon is honoring the ancient Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, in which Asian roles are given to Western actors. Others suspect he’s playing the White Savior who swoops in to save the darker-toned natives. The film’s producers, however, might say Damon is simply earning his salary — and it will be money well spent if the bankable star helps “The Great Wall” become as popular abroad as it is in China, where it has earned roughly $170 million.
Major success here seems unlikely. “The Great Wall” doesn’t translate well, mainly because this action-fantasy creature-feature speaks a cinematic Esperanto — inelegant, unidentifiable, with bits and pieces borrowed from here and there. For a movie that seems to be a national point of pride — entrusted to director Zhang Yimou, of the Oscar-nominated “House of Flying Daggers” and the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics ceremonies — “The Great Wall” feels like it could have come from anywhere.
The trouble starts early, with aerial shots of a twisty-turny Great Wall that looks noticeably angular and computer-generated. The realism improves once the action moves onto the physical sets, but other details begin to nag. Why, if we’re in the 12th century, does Matt Damon’s William Garin speak plain American English? His roughneck sidekick, Tovar (a likable Pedro Pascal), is audibly from Spain, which at least makes historical sense. At any rate, they’ve come to China seeking gunpowder, but they’re captured by General Lin (Jing Tian), surely the rare female commander of her era.
There’s no time for romance, though, because humanity is under siege by the Tao Tei, a dinosaurish species of monster. We first see them as a bunch of little dots scampering across the countryside — a very disappointing introduction. We’ll soon learn they’re fast, fanged and smart, but that poor first impression lingers. It’s an odd mistake from Yimou, who generally seems unsure how to apply his romantic style to this wannabe American blockbuster.
In the end, “The Great Wall” — despite its six-person writing team, esteemed director, A-list star and $150 million budget — feels oddly low-quality, almost counterfeit. It looks like a real movie from afar, but falls apart the moment you start watching it.