Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Lin Chi-ling, Nakamura Shido, You Yong
Written by: John Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu, based on a book by Lou Guanzhong
Directed by: John Woo
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of epic warfare
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 288
Date: 06/30/2008

Red Cliff (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Battle of Wits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As a battle epic, John Woo's Red Cliff is as impressively mounted as Braveheart and Gladiator, but as directed by Hong Kong action master John Woo, it easily surpasses them in terms of style and grace, action and cinematography. (It is currently the all-time box office champion in China.) During the Han Dynasty, the evil Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) embarks on a campaign to wipe out two rebel forces, with the might of the emperor's army on his side. Representing the two rebel armies, strategist Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) team up to battle Cao Cao; together they use wisdom and cunning against the villain's brute strength. The movie depicts several smaller, individual attacks and battles before building up to the final showdown.

Woo is one of the few directors alive who understands the poetry of action and the beauty of movement, emphasizing these things with a welcome clarity (rather than the usual hand-held action jumble). Likewise, his focus is less on the war itself, than on the friendship between two rivals who have teamed up against a greater evil. Together they use wisdom and cunning to battle the sheer military might of their opponent. The movie unfolds in separate sequences, each representing an individual battle or attack, and it flows impeccably, without letting the numerous characters and plotlines grow too complex. All in all, it may be one of the greatest battle epics ever made.

Red Cliff was released in China in two parts, totaling 288 minutes, while a single-film, 148-minute version opened in America. The American cut flopped, as viewers quickly decided that they didn't want to invest any time or money in half a movie. I liked the edited version, but now that I have seen the complete 288-minute cut on Blu-Ray, I will never again go back to the short one. The longer one fleshes out the characters, of course, but also spends more time setting up the nuances of the battles. The feisty Princess Sun (Zhao Wei), now resists an arranged marriage before she sneaks behind enemy lines to spy for the good guys, and has a touching relationship with a skilled, but slightly dim enemy soldier. Even Cao Cao comes out differently here, seeming more personally tormented and driven in this version.

Like the butchered version of Once Upon a Time in America in 1984, I hope Red Cliff eventually finds an audience on home video, and that they will come to find, as I did, that it's one of the greatest films ever made.

Blu-Ray Details: The great-looking, essential two-disc Blu-Ray from Magnet (Magnolia) preserves the original two-film theatrical release from China, with opening and closing credits on each half. It comes with a generous making-of feauture, which runs more than 2 hours, plus interviews with Woo, storyboards and other goodies.

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