It took three films to ruin John Woo’s reputation. The first, Mission: Impossible II was a huge crossover hit. It was also watered down and PG-13 rated Woo-inspired mayhem, and pissed off fans something fierce. It was a sell-out film, but the box office guaranteed him some freedom. Then came Windtalkers, a big-budget MGM war picture that only fans really got into. Finally Paycheck came out at the end of 2003 and between Woo and Affleck, no one cared (except the devoted fans, and I find the film to be lightly charming). But even among the faithful, Woo seemed to have peaked in his Hong Kong period, when he was making films like Bullet in the Head, The Killer and Hard Boiled. Red Cliff was his return to Hong Kong, and with it, he directed an epic. A five hour period war movie about a squad of loyal but outmatched dissenters fighting against an emperor set on controlling all of china through war. Originally set to star Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung (reuniting the Hard Boiled leads) both quit, but only Leung returned. It was a long, troubled production, but the film was a huge hit in its homeland, but arrived stateside in a truncated two and a half hour cut. But, bottom line: Woo still has it. My review of Red Cliff after the jump.
Leung stars as Zhou Yu, one of the leaders of the rebellion, and he’s up against the Han Dynasty, which is controlled by an evil prime minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Cao gets the emperor to start a war on a pair of warlords, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Bei’s has a secret weapon in the mercurial Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and Sun has Zhou, who also has a pregnant wife. Though the warlord’s pairing is tenuous, they work together, and even though they are greatly outnumbered are able to use the Yangtze River and their own smarts to keep winning minor victories.
Few modern filmmakers ever get the privilege to have real scale, the sort of which uses thousands of human bodies as backdrop for machinations. And of those that do, often they’re used incorrectly. And even though this has been enhanced by CGI, Woo’s handle on spectacle is nothing less than breathtaking. It’s a great god’s eye view of large scale assaults, and you really get a sense of the movement and actions of hundreds of people in combat. But it also never loses the sense of strategy, and there’s some great moments where you get to see how the underdogs take advantage of Cao’s hubris. One of the great sequences has Zhuge Liang promising to get his side more arrows. His plan is ingenious, and it’s moments like this that get you really invested in the characters and their plotting. It’s not much more than a war film, with a light dressing of Woo’s themes of heroic bloodshed and brotherhood, but the sheer size of it all makes it more than the sum of its battle sequences.
There are two versions of the film on Blu-ray and DVD. One is the five hour cut, and the other is the theatrically-released two and a half hour cut. Having now seen both, I think both have their strengths. The longer cut is better in the sense that it lets you dig in and get to know the characters on a deeper level, where the theatrical cut is just all about the spectacle. I can’t say I prefer the theatrical, stripped-down cut, but in terms of visceral power it may be more fulfilling as it concentrates more on just the fighting. I would compare it to Bergman’s Scene from a Marriage in that I like both, but it’s tempting to watch the shorter version.
Red Cliff opened in America and disappeared. What happened to the Woo fanboys? Arguably no one has done what he did, and there’s some fine action directors (Paul Greengrass comes to mind), but cinema has moved away from straight action until recently, with films favoring more superhero-based spectacle. Perhaps because of the shorter cut some stayed away, while others may have gotten the kick of importing the film as they once did with the Tai Seng video tapes of his earlier films. But the spectacle and action of these films deserved to be seen, and it’s weird this fell under the radar. America has turned away from Woo it seems, but Red Cliff definitively proves that Woo never lost it, and that he is a master.
Magnolia’s Blu-ray presentation is phenomenal. There are two versions available; we were sent the theatrical cut. It comes in English and Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD with optional English subtitles. There’s a making of called “The Long Road” (145 min.) that is exhaustive, though the English subtitles go horribly out of synch toward the end. Then there’s a nice interview with John Woo (27 min.), and an HD-Net look at the film (5 min.). Storyboards and bonus trailers round out the set.