Whenever a new innovation hits the movies, there’s a shakedown period where the storytelling is thrown backwards a decade until filmmakers figure out how best to incorporate that new idea into the Hollywood dream machine.
It happened with talkies, it happened with Technicolor, and now — as witnessed earlier this year with “Pacific Rim Uprising,” again last month in “Skyscraper” and now with the hit-and-miss monster movie “The Meg” — it’s happening with the idea of Chinese co-production.
In all three films, having Chinese backers means having the budget to make big-league special effects. It also means setting part of the action in China — whether it’s the Shanghai skyline in “Skyscraper” or Sanya Bay for the climax of “The Meg.” And it means casting actors who are stars in China in prominent roles opposite the American or European stars. (Certainly this is a step up from sticking an Anglo actor awkwardly in an Asian setting, like Matt Damon in “The Great Wall” or Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell.”)
But it also means, so far, sticking to action formulas that feel a bit dated.
In “The Meg,” based on a 1997 beach-read novel by Steve Allen, Chinese actress Li Bingbing is cast alongside Jason Statham. It’s an interesting balancing act, as director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) plays them against each other as co-leads. Yes, Statham’s character saves Li’s character from certain death, but she tough and returns the favor when necessary.
Statham plays Jonas Taylor, a deep-sea rescue diver whose career imploded several years back, when he aborted a mission on a submarine — and left two of his colleagues to die — because he saw something monstrous attacking them. But when a submersible from marine research station off the China coast gets trapped in the Marianas Trench, seemingly by the same monster, the station’s boss Mac (Cliff Curtis) calls on Jonas to lead the rescue. Jonas says no, until he learns his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee), is piloting the submersible.
Li Bingbing plays Zhang Suyin, the station’s marine biologist, mandated by the script to be the one scientist arguing the monster must be kept alive and studied. Suyin gets support for this from her father (Winston Chao), the industrialist who spearheaded the station’s creation. On the opposite side of the argument is Morris (Rainn Wilson), the obnoxious American billionaire who’s bankrolling Zhang’s work — and who wants as big a trophy as harpoons, ropes and depth charges can get him.
Turteltaub assembles an offbeat ensemble around Statham and Li, including Page Kennedy, “Longmire’s” Robert Taylor and “Orange is the New Black” sensation (and future “Batwoman”) Ruby Rose. Of course, we know the cast’s main purpose: Bait for the monster, which is revealed early on to be a megalodon, or “meg,” a supersized prehistoric shark.
Most of the action, despite what you’ve seen in the marketing, is at sea, as the station’s crew tries to subdue the beast before it starts seeking other prey, like tourists. The action is often silly, but not quite silly enough to make a giant-shark movie really fun.
Waterlogged as it is, “The Meg” is crying out for a little Jackie Chan-level comedy or Jet Li acrobatics or Bruce Lee intensity. Maybe future co-productions won’t just take Chinese money and Chinese actors, but some of that wild anarchic spirit of classic Chinese action movies.
Opens Friday, August 10, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language. Running time: 113 minutes.