It's been six years since we last heard from John Woo, and even longer since he directed a good movie. For a short while, Woo was my favorite action director - that is, until he made Windtalkers. Oh, and Paycheck. Jesus, Paycheck. But Woo is back with an all-Chinese, all-battle epic called Red Cliff (Chi Bi), and it his best movie this decade. Of course, that's not saying much.
Red Cliff is set during the final years of the Han Dynasty, and focuses on a battle between the ruler of the land of Wu, Sun Quan, and the Chinese Prime Minister Cao Cao, a vicious invader who has already taken over much of the country. Though Cao Cao's army vastly outnumbers the opposing forces, Sun Quan and his allies see weaknesses in his seemingly unstoppable armada and decide to make a stand and save China once and for all.
The movie is unlike any other Woo movie I've seen (which, save from Hard Boiled, includes only American films). The picture is gritty, in-your-face and very much Chinese, almost to a fault. All that American style Woo crafted through Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II has gone out the window, replaced with an abruptly edited, roughly shot and yet grandiose epic. The result: an entertaining, exciting and violent collection of battles and drama designed to be seen on the big screen, albeit one that suffers from some effects that American audiences won't get.
As entertaining as Red Cliff is, Woo goes overboard as he pays homage to Chinese classics of old. I'm not a connoisseur of such films, so I'll look at the movie from a purely American viewpoint. The film's editing, while alluring at time, is so basic and rough that at times it's just awkward; Woo uses some effects you'd see in a Tarantino movie, except for here they're not meant to be funny. While you get used to them after a while, they detract from the overall experience.
The use of wirework is minimal, which makes it all the stranger when Woo does employ it. Woo takes more advantage of the effect near the end of the 30-minute climax, which is a little unfortunate considering that up until that point he'd subjected us to one of the most explosive battle sequences put to film. The negative impact is minor, but still noticeable.
Overall, though, these flaws are nitpicky. On a grander scale, Red Cliff has plenty of intense, bloody action that makes it well worth the price of admission. Sure, most of the time you can't tell who is who (beyond the stereotypical "all Asians look alike," I seriously had trouble whether the good guys were winning or losing the battle) and a lot of the battle formations don't make much sense (why would the bad guys voluntarily ride their horses into a trap and then not attempt to break out of it?), but there's a lot of action and its engaging.
Beyond the action, Woo has littered his epic with several strong actors and a compelling screenplay. The story isn't particularly unique, but the movie doesn't have to be; the character dynamics are there, and the cast, which includes Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang and Jun Hu, delivers.
Red Cliff is not without its flaws and audiences expecting a more American movie may be put off by some of the stylistic effects utilized in the picture, but it is a legitimately grand and well-made film. John Woo is back.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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