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'The Great Wall,' China's Matt Damon film, is a big, dumb monster movie

It's no "The Last Samurai."
The Great Wall

We swear that "The Great Wall," featuring Matt Damon fighting monsters in Ancient Jasin Boland

‘The Great Wall’
Director:
Zhang Yimou
Stars: Matt Damon, Jing Tian
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

The most refreshing thing about “The Great Wall” is that it’s a big, dumb monster movie. That’s refreshing because it could have been something else. The ads inadvertently sell this lumbering behemoth as another case of whitewashing — a tale of Ancient China that inexplicably stars Matt Damon. Remember Tom Cruise’s name weirdly hovering over the words “The Last Samurai”? Alas, it’s not another one of those. It’s a (mostly) positive example of international teamwork. Hollywood caught on years ago that Chinese audiences were among the world’s biggest fans of their movies. It was only a matter of time before the two kids pulled their resources, pairing their similar-but-very-different powers for a semi-awkward shotgun marriage with the same price tag as a superhero movie.

It’s probably for the best that “The Great Wall” “feels” more Chinese than Hollywood. Damon plays William, a globe-trotting bandit who either sounds American or Irish-ish, depending on the take. Our marquee name always looks a touch lost, but that’s probably a good thing; were he was more present he might upstage the goods: hordes upon hordes of green reptiles from space with a hankering to break through the Great Wall of China.

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The good news is William never becomes the sole hero. He merely helps the Chinese army’s top brass, including a fearsome commander (Jing Tian) who’s also a badass woman. He’s there to rock some Jason Bourne moves with a bow. He’s also there as a name and a face — catnip to lure Western audiences who’d usually ignore a big movie from China that’s already made a profit overseas. After all, how many Yanks even know about such Chinese imports as “The Mermaid” and “Journey to the West: The Demon Strikes Back,” which have made “Fast and the Furious” money everywhere but here?

The real star, though, is its director. The producers and writers (including “Bourne” regular Tony Gilroy) are American, which doesn’t explain why the English dialogue still sounds like it was badly translated from Mandarin. But at the helm is Zhang Yimou, the maker of gorgeous spectacles, from “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” to the trippy eyesore that was the opener to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang loves huge throngs of color-coded extras, digital effects that don’t look overly digital and action that’s as kinetic as it is poetic (if here, a little too reliant on very American “speed-ramping”). “The Great Wall” looks great, living up to the promise of “‘Starship Troopers’ only in Ancient China.” Each monster deluge looks and plays different. One is encased in grey fog peppered with the hot orange of fiery cannonballs. Another involves hot air balloons. A set piece involving “screaming arrows” is a delight to the ears and the eyes.

While Zhang is in full-force during the melees, he’s merely directing traffic during the cutscenes. He barely tolerates his visiting actors. Even Willem Dafoe, as another ex-pat, looks adrift, as if he’d wandered onto set under a trance. This is by no means top-shelf Zhang, but then neither are “Hero” or “House of Flying Daggers.” His reputation still lies with his gorgeous old period dramas, like “Red Sorghum” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” which delighted international audiences while enraging powers back home. This is him in nationalist trash mode, and dopey characters and functional plot and all, at least it’s leaner and meaner and prettier than any stupid monster mash Hollywood could cook up on its own. China wins again.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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