Why Matt Damon’s ‘The Great Wall’ Became a Great Big Bomb

An attempt to please both sides of the Pacific missed the mark with a weak plot and underdeveloped characters

After years of hype, Legendary’s would-be China-U.S. crossover epic “The Great Wall” crumbled at the box office, earning just $18.1 million during its opening weekend in North America on an estimated $150 million production budget. (The projection for the four-day holiday is $21 million.)

Worse, director Zhang Yimou’s English-language fantasy epic starring Matt Damon didn’t prove to be much of a blockbuster in China either, reeling in a disappointing $170.4 million since it opened in December.

“That movie became one of the worst movies in China,” Wang Haige, chairman of the Huading Awards (China’s version of the People’s Choice Awards) told TheWrap in December.

While it edged out “Kung Fu Panda 3” as China’s eighth-highest grossing film of last year, Legendary’s video-game adaptation “Warcraft” hauled in $220.8 million in China last year with much less hype — but an easily identifiable and massive core audience of gamers who got exactly what they wanted.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In fact, “The Great Wall” was seen as the first crossover blockbuster for Legendary after China’s real estate and investment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group acquired Thomas Tull’s 16-year-old production firm last January for $3.5 billion. It was also the first movie filmed at Wanda’s $8 billion Oriental Movie Metropolis in the city of Qingdao.

Several Hollywood films have been massive hits in China, with Universal’s “Furious 7” and Paramount’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” topping $300 million at the local box office, but the reverse hasn’t held true.

Other than Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning 2000 action drama “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — which hauled in $128 million at the U.S. box office but didn’t do nearly as much business in China (although the country’s box office was significantly smaller then) — the country’s homegrown movies haven’t been able to travel well. American entertainment lawyer Sky Moore, who works closely with Chinese studios, called a crossover hit the “holy grail” for them.

“The Great Wall” was conceived with seemingly foolproof elements to appeal to crowds in both China and the U.S.: a beloved Chinese director (Zhang), a Hollywood movie star (Damon), and a “unity” plot that features foreign mercenaries teaming up with 11th-century Chinese military leaders to battle lizard monsters.

But as anyone who has eaten at a fusion restaurant that missed the mark knows, trying to be both things for two separate audiences often ends up satisfying neither. Here are some of the movie’s shortcomings:

1. Lost in translation

Most of the movie takes place on, in and directly next to the Great Wall of China, which looked great in 3-D (and very big budget), but means little to American audiences more likely to be motivated to buy tickets to what’s essentially a monster fantasy movie.

The 11th-century setting, archery and catapult-heavy battles and historical references, which give the film the Chinese imprint its backers wanted, don’t exactly make it easier to appeal to U.S. crowds.

2. A sidelined star

Damon’s character, William Garin, gets the most screen time but has almost no backstory — we find out early on that he’s an enigmatic (British?) mercenary who came to China looking for black powder, and he runs off a list of battles he fought in a 30-second talk with Commander Lin (Jing Tian), but there’s just not much there to identify with to other than his skills with a bow and arrow and occasional wisecracks.

Some Chinese critics viewed Damon’s participation in the film as a pure cash grab. “He joined the movie because of the high pay,” Wang said. “I’m against those stars who attempt to get more money to act in the more low-quality movie.”

3. Spectacle over plot and character

Zhang, who directed the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, achieves some spectacular and sweeping battle scenes.

But in imitating American fantasy and action movie tropes, the Chinese have not yet mastered the creation of charismatic characters  that people will want to follow through multiple films. (We know and love Deadpool after one movie.)

And even the non-Damon characters are underdeveloped, from Chinese star Andy Lau’s Strategist Wang to William’s partner, Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), who reveals his presumed Spanish heritage by saying “amigo” often in his otherwise all-English dialogue.

4. The whole whitewashing issue

Last summer, the film came under fire in the U.S. by people who mistakenly thought Damon was playing an Asian character — or the white hero who comes to the rescue of nonwhite characters.

But Zhang was quick to come to the actor’s defense. “Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor,” Zhang said. “The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese.”

5. A crosscultural hodge-podge

Several high-ranking Chinese film executives and “Great Wall” insiders TheWrap has spoken with over the course of the past year expressed concerns early on that the film’s disparate elements wouldn’t coalesce into something coherent and engaging enough for the American moviegoers’ higher standards.

Even Chinese critics attacked the film’s formulaic plot and blatant attempts to appeal to the U.S., and audiences failed to fully embrace it despite the hype and full force of Legendary parent and the country and world’s largest cinema owner Wanda Group behind the film.

The recipe for true crossover movie might include bankable movie stars from both hemispheres, a diverse set of characters comfortable in their own skin, funny one-liners and a good story. That might be called “Furious 7.”