Red Cliff (Blu-ray)
Hollywood action fans might have embraced him as one of their own following the likes of Hard Target and the pure popcorn nonsense that was Face/Off, but let's be honest, a generation too young to remember the likes of Hard Boiled must quite likely wonder just where the reverence for John Woo comes from. Good news then that this gargantuan epic finds the master craftsman going back to his roots, back to China, and delivering a mouthwatering slice of ultra-violent, hyper-stylized Chinese history that stands tall as his best work in well over a decade. A somewhat loose adaptation of Guanzhong Luo's historical epic, re-told many times many ways, Red Cliff recounts the heroic last stand of a desperate alliance of rebel kingdoms, led by defiant warlord Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quann (Chen Chang) gather at the eponymous riverside redoubt to stand defiant against dastardly Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) and his plans to carve his name into history using the mighty Imperial horde as his blade.
If the idea of a two and a half hour period piece about duty and honor drenched in third century Chinese politics sounds like a bit of a snoozefest, you'll soon change your tune. While the chit-chat is plentiful, it's also pointed and sharpened to speartip. This is a story about war, and specifically the art of it. In fact calling it Sun Tzu: The Motion Picture wouldn't be all that inaccurate. Anchored by two massive set pieces, one in the middle and one at the end, much of the story takes the form of a quietly kindled bromance between Tony Leung's viceroy and Takeshi Kaneshiro's master tactician, each finding renewed resolve with the other's cunning and guile, and giving Woo yet another opportunity to indulge his favorite theme of male bonding.
While spectacularly violent and gorgeously orchestrated, Red Cliff marks a distinct shift in gears from the man who made slow motion gunfights a staple of the action genre. This is combat on an epic scale unseen since Jackson's Middle Earth, which is a clear reference point for Woo as he diligently moves ant like regiments and CG armadas around the jaw-dropingly gorgeous vistas of the Hebei Province. It's here at the base of the looming eponymous rock face that the mechanics of combat that are fetishized through lengthy strategy sessions, taking in everything from logistics, supplies and inventory to espionage, formations and weather patterns as we receive expert tutelage on how to change the tide of an entire battle with a cup of tea and a gust of wind. It might all sound like a lot of twaddle, but an expert ambush on Cao Cao's ground forces and an ingenious naval ruse designed to pilfer enemy ammo shows there is method to their madness.
As for the battles themselves, Woo delivers a masterclass in hyper-real, ballsy, bruising bloodshed for the XBox generation, showing how a little computer trickery can go a long way when anchored around solid stunt work, making epic scrapping visually arresting in a way Michael Bay can only dream of. Replete with a veritable buffet of gruff, muscle-bound generals, complimented by a couple of foxy, ass-kicking ladies, Red Cliff is as close to a video game beat-em-up come to life as you're ever likely to see. With each character replete with signature outfits, unique stances, and special weapons you almost half-expect to see "finish him!" pop up on the screen as lazer beams shoot out of their eyes.
Nothing short of gorgeous, Red Cliff is one of those titles where Blu-ray really shows its worth, with the bright and colorful standard banners gleaming crisply in the morning sun and the walls thunderously shaking at the sound of approaching enemy cavalry. Sure, it's not perfect as the stiff dubbing takes a lot of getting used to before you can relax into it, and the overarching narration that fills in the blanks between this and the international version is conducted with all the vigor of a History Channel retrospective. Perhaps most crucially the pivotal role of the viceroy's wife, vital to the outcome is muddled in terms of motivation and lacks the requisite set up to be a truly satisfying pay off. But these are minor quibbles when placed in context to the sheer, sweeping majesty of it all. Best of all is the news that, for those who want more, another two and a half hours worth of story can be found in the full-length five hour international version. As good as this is - and it's very, very good - this literally isn't the half of it.
Blu-ray Special Features:
Two featurettes; The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road and A Coversation With John Woo: The Heroism and History of Red Cliff. Storyboards and online only extras also included.
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Lin Chi-Ling, You Yong
Directior: John Woo
Runtime: 148 Minutes
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