Matt Damon sounded very much like the family man at Wednesday night's premiere of Legendary-Universal's fantasy action-adventure "The Great Wall" at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Instead, he plays a traveler in search of valuable materials who gets mixed up in the chaos of the Great Wall's defense against fierce, other-worldly creatures.
The script by three screenwriters - Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy - is monosyllabic. There's a history here, and it's bad. Chopping off the beast's arm, the two escape arriving at the Great Wall of China.
The movie contains these lovely landscape shots.
Director Zhang Yimou has made some of the most ravishingly lovely films to come out of China, including "Raise the Red Lantern", "House of Flying Daggers", and "Hero", movies that are lavishly sensual in their use of color and light. The scenes especially between Tovar and William seem so cut-and-dry that it's hard for them to have the weighty impact the film clearly wants them to, and their little subplot becomes painfully predictable.
In charge of the Nameless Order is a very capable group of Chinese. Seeing him share the screen with strong Asian characters in The Great Wall could potentially help audiences hesitant to accept diversity onscreen be more welcoming of it, specifically when it comes to Asian actors. The film also stars Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, and Junkai Wang. They are taken prisoner by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) just as word spread of an impending attack from the "Tao Tei". Damon's accent wanders amiably from region to region, Pascal doesn't get enough to do, and Defoe - whose pointed mania usually crackles onscreen - opens his eyes very wide to no real goal. William and Tovar are also handy audience surrogates and onscreen "applause" signs who spend a whole sequence staring awestruck at the immensity and might of the Nameless Order's operations - "Have you ever seen anything like this?" William and his scheming companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive the scrap, killing the dinosaur-like creature and cutting off its claw for proof.
Damon is a huge star, both worldwide and in Hollywood. Some of the appearances have been so artificial and decorative that Chinese critics have dubbed them "flower vases." He's an worldwide star and will bring a sense of credibility to what is essentially a Chinese film to an American audience. The bantering relationship between William and Pero runs deeper than the attraction between William and Lin, and Damon's performance is starchy. To suggest that he's taking the place of a Chinese actor ignores the fact that there are dozens of homegrown Chinese releases with Chinese casts each year that struggle to find a toehold in the United States, where worldwide blockbusters fall in the gap between arthouses and multiplexes.
Despite good projections, and massive earnings of $171 Million in China, the movie is falling behind in the United States. Starring global superstar Matt Damon and directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou ("Hero", "House of Flying Daggers"), the film tells the story of an elite force making a valiant stand for humanity on the world's most iconic structure. Previously they played the same character in two different movies.
The warning is about the mythical mass of marauding monsters that are sweeping down northern China but it could just as easily be for the kind of Hollywood-China collaboration that is "The Great Wall".
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