Matt Damon in The Great Wall (Photo: Universal)

★½ (out of four)
STARS Matt Damon, Tian Jing

Perhaps not since Roman centurion John Wayne ambled up to Jesus on the cross in The Greatest Story Ever Told has an American actor looked so uncomfortably out of place as Matt Damon in The Great Wall.

Set in 11th century China, the film posits that an army of warriors has been tasked with protecting the nation – indeed, the world – against the monsters that periodically rise up and destroy everything in their path. As in Little Shop of Horrors, these so-called Taoties are mean green mothers from outer space, and as in Jeepers Creepers, they only awaken from their slumber at set intervals to wreak havoc. The Chinese forces are comprised of nothing but brave warriors and smart generals, but even they’re helpless against these marauding monsters. But wait! Just when everything seems hopeless, along comes Matt Damon to save the day!

Hold on, you interject. An American in 11th century China? But of course, my sluggish friend! After all, The Great Wall is a co-production between the U.S. and China, and while it’s all well and good that it’s based on Chinese history and on Chinese legend (e.g. the Taoties), that just ain’t gonna sell in Butte, Montana, Biloxi, Mississippi or Bumfuck, Maryland. So enter a Yankee doodle dandy in the form of Matt Damon, cast as a mercenary who ends up helping the Chinese help themselves. Now, I imagine Damon isn’t supposed to be playing an American, but with that pronounced Boston accent, it’s impossible to accept him as anything but. Damon is one of those actors too stubbornly modern to convince in any period before the 20th century, and in The Great Wall, he seems as organic to the era as would a MacBook Pro.

Beyond the grotesque miscasting of Damon, The Great Wall proves to be a spectacularly stupid movie, and it’s a shame to see the great Yimou Zhang attached to such shameless hucksterism. After all, the director’s 1991 Raise the Red Lantern remains one of the great foreign-language imports of the past few decades, and other stellar credits include Ju DouHero and To Live. This new feature might as well be called To Sell Out: It boasts little of the lyricism of his past efforts, and the visual effects employed to bring the creatures to life are embarrassingly gaudy and unconvincing. The movie may already be a box office hit overseas, but all in all, it’s just another brick in the wall of cinematic stinkers.

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