Matt Damon has earned his action bona fides with The Martian and the Bourne films; veteran Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers), doing his first film in English, is a world-class master. (It’s hard to forget his 2008 staging of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.) So it’s exciting just to think of the two teaming up. Reality, sad to say, is a bitch. This co-production between the U.S. and China, the two leading spots on the map for mining gold at box office, is a $150 million mess of muddy 3-D computer effects and backward thinking. Even in the Far East, where major local stars such as Hong Kong’s Andy Lau, are reduced to supporting roles, it still takes a white Hollywood movie star to save the world.
Damon plays William, a 12th-century European mercenary who’s been dragging his ass and a phony ponytail across the deserts of western China looking for the mysterious black powder that can turn citizens of the globe into gun freaks. Aided by his Spanish best-friend-forever Tovar (Pedro Pascal), Good Will is hunting for his fortune. But as they push toward the digitized Great Wall to make a deal, they’re met by a spray of arrows indicating “not so fast, interlopers.” Zhang keeps everything moving in a swirl of color, light and dizzying action. Which helpfully distracts from a plot, credited to three screenwriters, that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
A lot of the actors, including Damon and Pascal, speak in a weirdly accented English that at times makes them sound dubbed. You probably won’t notice because the stilted dialogue is drowned out by shrieking monster attacks. The Tao Tei, as they’re called, look like a combo of dinosaur and orc; according to legend, they pounce like giant cockroaches every 60 years to thin out the human population. Not on Damon’s watch. Tovar and a European turncoat (played by an understandably confused Willem Dafoe) plan an escape. But count on William to stay and fight the good fight against the aliens. He seems to be developing a thing for Lin Mae (Jing Tian), a female leader of the so-called Nameless Order, which includes a way cool team of armed female aerialists. Despite a few hot looks, however, sexy time is not an option for these two. Besides, it’s hard to get it on when these beasties are crawling up the Great Wall, mouths agape and ready to chow down.
That’s the movie, folks. It plays like like a video game in which the goal is to kill as many of these green-blooded monsters as you can before time’s up. It’s fun for about 10 minutes, and then the tedium seeps in. We do learn that a magnet has the power to lull the creatures to sleep, which is nothing considering that the movie all on its own acts a soporific. Many reviewers in China found it disappointing that all Zhang and Damon came up with is a B-level creature feature with delusions of grandeur. In a move Trump would envy, the Chinese government quickly silenced the naysayers. It’s getting hard out here for a critic.