I discovered John Woo in the early 1990’s a few years before the DVD format came out in the U.S. and while the videotape bootleg circuit was still in full swing. While he’s been making films since the early 1970’s, it wasn’t until A Better Tomorrow came out in 1986 that he really established a western following. And with huge international hits like The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hard Boiled (1992), you just knew it wouldn’t be long before he made the jump to the more prestigious land of Hollywood. Woo made a couple of quality American actioners, most notably Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997) before jumping into the Mission Impossible franchise with 2000’s second installment. While all these films were bona fide hits, his next big-budget films were not. Windtalkers (2002) was a total flop, taking in only $40 million on a $115 million budget while Paycheck (2003) failed to break even, taking in around $54 million on a $60 million budget. By this time, I think Woo was getting tired of the Hollywood system and, with back-to-back films that under-performed, Hollywood was becoming wary of Woo. After directing the pilot for a new Lost in Space TV series (the series wasn’t picked up and the pilot remains unaired to this day), Woo saw the writing on the wall. He picked up and moved his films back to China where he has been busy creating the Red Cliff series.
Of course, Woo has long been well-known for his ultraviolent and action-oriented crime dramas and war pictures, but Red Cliff, while not his biggest budget extravaganza, is certainly his first major foray into period drama. This isn’t just a period drama; this is a huge, sweeping, historical epic of massive proportions that tells the story of civil war in China during the Three Kingdoms period from 220 – 280 A.D. This period of Chinese history is aptly named as China was essentially divided into three kingdoms: two fractious kingdoms in the north and the relatively peaceful southern kingdom. The two northern kingdoms had long been at war, with the Prime Minister essentially haranguing the young and inexperienced Emperor into war with the other part of the northern kingdom. The emperor’s army numbered nearly a million men, with a powerful and extensive navy, while the other northern kingdom was terribly outnumbered. This forced the less powerful northern army to join forces with the southern kingdom in an effort to defeat the Emperor’s military might.
Even with the northern rebels joining forces with the southern kingdom, the force is still hugely outnumbered by the Emperor’s army, so the rebels must resort to clever military tactics to try and defeat the Emperor. These tactics include the tortoise defense as well as the use of fire and the ability to predict the weather. These sequences offer some fascinating insight into what warfare nearly two millennia ago must have been like. I am no expert on Chinese warfare so I’m not sure how historically accurate these sequences are, but they certainly made sense within the context of the film as well as providing some interesting and exciting battle sequences. In a way, it reminded me a bit of how Eisenhower would have felt just before the D-Day invasion in June of 1944. He knew he was outnumbered, he knew his army would take massive losses as he took the offensive, and he knew weather would play a major role in his eventual victory or defeat. Woo does an absolutely terrific job of creating a palpable tension as the rebel army inexorably moves toward initiating their grandiose plan, all the while hoping that the weather will turn in their favor. The addition of the southern kingdom’s princess trying to covertly delay the northern army’s attack to help her husband’s odds of winning only adds to this tension.
Originally filmed as a two-part series, each movie running well over two hours in length, the Red Cliff movies were epic in the way we think of Gone with the Wind or Roots as epic. While the film series was made for a Chinese audience, the producers, along with Woo, wanted to create a more westernized version that would focus more on the action than the generally unfamiliar historical drama of ancient China. The two movies were reedited and condensed into a 2 1/2 hour international version, which is the version I am reviewing.
Even with much of the Chinese history and soap-opera drama cut out, Red Cliff remains epic in scale and production. There is still a great deal of historical drama interspersed with highly stylized and bloody depictions of warfare. The production value is terrific, with huge, sweeping shots of battle formations and hundreds of actors in period costume. To do something on this scale in this day and age means the necessary use of CGI, but the CGI effects are generally seamless and are also high quality. There are plenty of huge shots of armies and landscapes that needed to be done through the use of CGI, as well as plenty of CGI blood flying during the battle sequences, as well as the largest conflagration I’ve yet seen on film. While I suspect that many of these scenes were created with CGI, they were not done cheaply and do not detract from the film as sometimes happens with these types of effects. In fact, the only CGI effect I could automatically pick out was a computerized dove used by soldiers to pass information across the battle lines.
The acting is superb and I enjoyed the dramatic scenes as much as the battle scenes. Let’s face it: good acting is good acting in any culture and language. The violence, while not being over-the-top in typical John Woo fashion, certainly is present. There are plenty of throat- and body-slashings as well as arrows that hit just about every part of the body. While blood flies liberally, it isn’t an intentional gross-out such as the film 300. (As an aside, I’m not criticizing 300 as I love that film, but it focuses more on the violent aspects of war while Red Cliff is more of an historical drama with battle sequences).
The film contains plenty of the director’s trademarks for those fans of Woo who know what they are looking for. The aforementioned use of a dove would be one of those scenes (wouldn’t a passenger pigeon have been more accurate?). There is also the ubiquitous Mexican standoff, but with swords instead of guns for obvious reasons. There is also plenty of highly choreographed, slow-motion fighting that looks fantastic. In short, it’s easily the best film Woo has made in a decade, and hard-core Woo fans who miss his Hong Kong flicks might go back nearly two decades in that estimate.
Red Cliff was entertaining enough that I will search out the original versions of the two films and watch the entire (nearly) six-hour version. Folks, John Woo is back with a vengeance and I, for one, am glad to see his comeback.