Oh how the mighty have fallen. The actor who once thrilled audiences as Jason Bourne, the CIA operative-gone-rogue has reached a new low in his otherwise stellar career (aside from that one 2003 mishap “Stuck On You” we’d all rather forget about).
“The Great Wall” is being hailed as Damon’s worst movie to date. It’s a film as cliche as its title, with plenty of poorly written lines and bad acting to back it up. To be fair, the fault for this abysmal “historical” monster drama does not rest solely on the shoulders of our favorite hero, his greatest misstep being the decision to take part in the movie at all. This muddled mess belongs to director Zhang Yimou, whose disjointed vision creates an incoherent piece of storytelling that not even Damon can save.
“The Great Wall” may be an example of when good intentions go bad. Yimou’s most recognized film within the U.S. is “Hero,” the martial arts epic that received rave reviews and had the backing of Quentin Tarantino. Since then, it seems, Yimou has been attempting to break more significantly into the American film market. “The Great Wall” was his most recent attempt to mesh the two cultures, intending to create a collaborative blockbuster ultimately about hope and friendship. The result, however, was a predictable flop that was dead on arrival.
Set some time around 1000 AD (though this is never made clear) much of “The Great Wall” takes place on, you guessed it, the Great Wall of China. Damon portrays William Garin, a mercenary and skilled bowman, who, with his friend Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are in search of black powder, known these days as gun powder.
While on the run from a host of dangers they are unwittingly taken prisoner by the color-coded soldiers of The Nameless Order stationed at the Great Wall. Unlucky for them the two mercenaries arrive just in time for a battle waged every 60 years between the people of China and green beasts known as the Taotie.
Capable of communicating telepathically and adapting over time, the Taotie are not your typical mindless monsters. They are nearly unstoppable unless stabbed through the eye, and the only way to end the war is to kill the queen, which is responsible for their regeneration.
Garin and Tovar are left with the choice to either stay and help fight a losing battle or abscond with the black powder as the onslaught continues.
Despite working with a host of translators throughout, Yimou apparently struggled with commonality both on and off screen. “The Great Wall” was neither distinctly Chinese, nor American. Yimou gives us what he thinks Americans want — explosions, alien creatures and lots of pointless fighting. Topped off with elements of the Kung fu wuxia genre Yimou is most familiar with it’s a mess of stale writing and forced acting without the fun of hand-to-hand combat.
Rather than staying in line with a more traditional Chinese motif, the creatures look more closely related to the extraterrestrial Sigourney Weaver faced in “Alien.” Their presence is jarring, and not just for dramatic effect. They appear so otherworldly and out of place that the story seems less like historical legend than science fiction.
Matt Damon also feels out of place, sticking out like a big white thumb. He never truly falls into character, struggling to deliver his lines with sincerity and wavering between indistinguishable accents (was that an Irish lilt?). His fumbling stood out even more against the background of Chinese actors meant to support his role, who fell in line more with the theatrical style of Yimou. It’s like throwing Ben Affleck into “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” The two styles just don’t work well together.
Perhaps Yimou allowed his warm and fuzzy intentions to cloud his judgement, placing greater emphasis on the collaboration of cultures rather than the quality of product. Either way, it will be back to the drawing board if the director plans on making a successful break into the American market.
If you’re a viewer who enjoys the awkward mixing and matching of genres a la “Cowboys and Aliens,” this might be the movie for you. Otherwise don’t bother. It’s going to be another movie Mr. Damon will wish we would all forget.