MOVIE REVIEW: Matt Damon's The Great Wall gets lost
A HOLLYWOOD superstar who can make even a pedestrian screenplay seem intelligent and a master Chinese filmmaker with a flair for ravishing visual imagery.
Matt Damon and Zhang Yimou must have seemed like the dream team for a $US135 million Hollywood blockbuster aiming to blend the best of east and west.
So what went wrong?
Perhaps the filmmakers were hampered by the clear commercial imperative for this thunderous creature feature - The Great Wall opened first in China, a new and increasingly lucrative income stream for American studios.
Or maybe something got lost in translation.
Zhang's Bejing Film Academy classmate Chen Kaige had a smaller but similarly-puzzling misfire with his English language debut, Killing Me Softly, starring Joseph Fiennes, Heather Graham and Natascha McElhone.
The largest film ever to be shot entirely in China - by New Zealand cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) - Zhang's epic fantasy has more to recommend it than that.
Matt Damon for a start.
The actor is ranked among Forbes magazine's most bankable Hollywood stars for good reason: he's never less than watchable, even when he is barely recognisable.
In The Great Wall's opening sequence, Damon's grizzled, battle-hardened mercenary has been on the run for so long, he's barely distinguishable from an animal - or his fellow travellers, for that matter.
It's only when William and his rakish offsider, played by Chilean-born American actor Pedro Pascal, shave off their dreadlocks, that it's possible to comprehensively tell them apart without a close-up.
Women play a powerful role in the majority of Zhang's films (Judou, Raise the Red Lantern, House Of Flying Daggers) and The Great Wall is no exception.
Tian Jing is a force to be reckoned with as Lin Mae, a commander in the Nameless Order, an elite force making a valiant last stand for humanity on the world's most iconic structure. (William and his mate stumble upon them in their opportunistic search for a mythical black powder.)
Perhaps it's a result of the different acting styles, although clunky dialogue is a more likely culprit, but the relationship between William and Lin Mae lacks any credible potency.
The film really hits its stride in the battle sequences - just the sheer scale of them is impressive. Zhang orchestrates the action like a great conductor.
And there's an extraordinarily beautiful sequence in which white paper balloons float up into the night sky to mark the passing of a general.
The alien monsters are also well-realised. They might come from another world but they are somehow believable in this one.
It's a shame that for all the sound and fury, The Great Wall feels about as artisanal as a fortune cookie. Its underlying message is just as trite.
The Great Wall is now showing.
THE GREAT WALL
Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal
Running time: 103 minutes
Reviewer: Vicky Roach
Verdict: Two and a half stars. An epic fantasy that crumbles under its own weight.