A mere slip of an epic at 146 minutes (you think I’m kidding, but I watched the original two-part, five-hour Asian-market version), John Woo’s first Chinese film in nearly two decades is both a triumphant homecoming and too much of a good thing.
When Woo went to Hollywood in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong in the early 90s he was riding the crest of a wave: hyper romantic urban thrillers like The Killers, A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled had earned him a reputation as the best action director in the world.
He took a little while to adjust to American filmmaking, appeared to hit his stride with the brilliant Face/Off, but then faltered… Windtalkers was a damaging set back and Paycheck was nothing if not well-named – pure hack-work. That was six years ago, so Red Cliff has been a long time coming.
It’s not hard to see why. This is moviemaking on an astounding scale. Apparently it’s the most expensive ever mounted in China, and you can believe that. Most filmmakers use CGI instead of armies of extras. Woo uses both.
This isn’t his first costume movie – they’re not well known in the West, but he made a few martial arts movies back in the day – but Woo never enjoyed such budgetary largesse in his Hong Kong days. The very least you can say is the budget is there on the screen.
Set in the Han period, approximately 280 AD, this is the oft-told story of the battle of the Three Kingdoms. An ambitious Prime Minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), heads south to put down two rebellious provinces – though in fact, they’re not rebelling at all, he just wants to consolidate his own power and get cosy with a certain maiden he has had his eye on
With an army of 80, 000 men he expects a walk-over. But the viceroys (Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chen Chang) forge an alliance against him. They are still out-numbered ten to one, but clever battle tactics do something to even up the score.
In some ways this feels like a throwback to the traditional widescreen epics of the 1950 and 60s: Ben Hur, Spartacus and El Cid. It’s all about the spectacle and sheer weight of numbers. What’s different is that there’s even more stress on the action – especially in this Western cut, that ditches half the character stuff from the original version. Admittedly, that is a wise decision – it was way too slow – but it does leave the movie with a lop-sided feel.
The action is very different from the old style epics too. Woo doesn’t stint on the blood, but he also mixes in Chinese wire-work effects and Hero-style supernatural theatrics. It doesn’t always work – it’s hard to care about an underdog who also seems to be invincible – but more often than not it’s entertaining.
Evidently influenced by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the battles start big and keep on growing, so if combat and carnage doesn’t interest you, don’t bother with Red Cliff. Most of us are susceptible to these kind of cinematic war games, though, and on that front Woo’s movie is an undoubted winner – his best for a long time.
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