Clipped 'Cliff' is still a grand action movie


POSTED: Friday, December 04, 2009

This would likely be a four-star movie if it were the entire film, but alas, it's not. “;Red Cliff”; is Hong Kong director John Woo's much-hyped return to Asian cinema, and it is a 20-year pet project of his and the biggest, grandest, most expensive film ever made in China. When it was released last year in the East, it was a monster hit. But it was also released in two parts, and this Americanized version takes both films and smooshes them together with most of the talky stuff cut out, to the point where it's head-scratchingly hard to follow. They added a couple of English-language voice-overs, which further confuses things.

Divertimento into China's “;warring states”; history: The “;Battle of Red Cliffs”; was a turning-point campaign fought in the winter of A.D. 208, during the dissolution of the Han Dynasty, between the numerically superior forces of Cao Cao, a northern warlord, and an alliance of southern warlords, notably Liu Bei and Sun Quan. It was fought on the Yangtze and ended essentially in a draw, which was a victory for the allied southerners.





        Rated: R

Opens today at Consolidated Kahala






Like the Alamo in America, Red Cliff has become part of the historical mythology of a nation's identity, and has become the subject of popular literature in China, particularly the quaint fiction “;Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”;

For the average American viewer, “;Red Cliff”; is a million Asian guys in costumes, thwacking at each other with swords to the sound of thunderous music. Entertaining stuff.

The skinning of “;Red Cliff”; has been likened to cutting “;Lawrence of Arabia”; in half or cutting Clark Gable out of “;Gone With the Wind.”; An epic should be epic, right? Woo's original two-part film, however, weighed in at nearly five hours, which means there are fewer tickets sold per day's showings. It makes business sense, if not artistic sense.

You've been warned. Now, what do we have here? One of the most amazing wide-screen entertainments of the year, one that really needs to be seen in a big theater with all the blood and thunder intact. As a sheer spectacle, “;Red Cliff”; ranks right up there with anything filmed in Cinerama, and bless the Chinese for continuing to film in Technicolor.

They've added some fictional elements, notably a Homeric subplot involving Cao Cao's (Zhang Fengyi) unrequited lust for the wife (Lin Chiling) of one of the rival warlords, as well as some mythological elements, particularly using straw boats to “;borrow”; needed arrows. There's a fair amount of political palavering between Sun Quan (Chang Chen), Liu Bei (Yong You), genius strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and trusted court advisor Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). At least I think that's what's going on. These portions are so abbreviated that there's precious little breathing space allotted to character development, although Leung manages to stand out as the brightest guy in the room.

It's like framing for the battle sequences, which are pure old-school spectacle, combining wire work and practical effects with newfangled CGI/FX.

It's not enough to have a huge cast whack at each other and film it, as battles of this sort, from the ground level, are dusty chaos. Woo's a genius at action choreography and unites intimate human moments with grand sweeps of military maneuvering. He's a hell of a storyteller.

Woo pays homage to the veracity of his source material, attempting a grand re-creation of third-century warfare while also resolving modern themes of courage and brotherhood in splintered communities. As a thrilling introduction to the era of warring states in China, “;Red Cliff”; is sure to tweak interest in the U.S. But make sure you see the full two-part version when it comes out on DVD.