Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Six-Shooter: Red Cliff

It was like the Siege of Troy without the big wooden horse. Well-known to Chinese audiences from the Fourteenth Century novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Battle of Red Cliff offered John Woo a huge, sprawling canvas for his first Asian produced film since answering Hollywood’s call in the early 1990’s. Featuring sweeping battle scenes, courtly intrigue, and yes, plenty of doves, Woo applies his signature action style to the 208 AD campaign in Red Cliff (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Though originally produced and released in Asian markets as two full movies clocking in at over five hours in total, the international edition of Cliff playing in American theaters has been edited into a mere two-and-a-half hour stand-alone film. While much of the historical background and perhaps a fair amount of character development were cut, the abridged version overflows with epic combat sequences, out-Bravehearting Braveheart.

In the waning days of the Han Dynasty, Prime Minister Cao Cao bullies the weak young Emperor into declaring war against Liu Bei’s peaceful Xu kingdom in the west and Sun Quan’s prosperous Wu kingdom to the South. Following a costly defeat, Liu’s strategist Zhuge Liang forges an uneasy alliance with Sun Quan by appealing to his wise Viceroy Zhou Yu, who has his own reasons for battling Cao Cao. His wife Xiao Qiao is Red Cliff’s Helen of Troy, whose beauty has haunted Cao Cao for years.

While the CGI can be a bit conspicuous at times, Woo invests the action with grit and vigor. He stages several enormously ambitious full-scale battles worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, complete with naval skirmishes, charging cavalry, and blizzards of arrows. Yet it is the gravity defying martial arts fight choreography that really delivers the goods.

As Zhou Yu, Tony Leung, the star of Woo’s breakout hit Hard Boiled, brings the right heroic screen presence to credibly serve as the action lead, without being overshadowed by the considerable spectacle constantly enveloping him. While many of the supporting players are largely lost in the editing shuffle (including the noble leaders of the allied provinces), Leung is nicely counterbalanced by Takeshi Kaneshiro as the mystical Zhuge (who turns out to be a walking second century Farmer’s Almanac). Chiling Lin also is quite effective as the beautiful Xiao Qiao, projecting a sense of strength and compassion that helps to humanize a story almost entirely dominated by warfare.

Red Cliff is probably best appreciated in its intended, unexpurgated form. Still, the American cut remains a meticulously produced historical action film that compares highly favorably with recent competing martial arts fare. Basically all about fighting, Cliff is frankly just a sheer blast to watch. It opens tomorrow (11/18) at the Sunshine Cinema.