Film review – Red Cliff (2008)

NOTE: This review discusses the Western release version of Red Cliff, which condenses the two-part Asian releases version into one single 148 minute film.

Zhou Yu (Tony Leung)

Zhou Yu (Tony Leung)

John Woo’s last really top-notch film may be as long ago as 1997’s Face/Off but as the director of action classics such as the Better Tomorrow films (1986 and 1987), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hard Boiled (1991) he is still the greatest living action director. Set in 208 AD in China during the Han Dynasty, Red Cliff may not contain any of the stylish and violent gunplay that defined so many of Woo’s gangster films but it is still a gripping character-driven film with spectacular action sequences. Based on the seven hundred year old novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff is very loosely based on historical events about two Chinese kingdoms that formed an uneasy alliance in order to take a stand against the Chinese Prime Minister who was intent on waging war against all the separate Chinese states. The resulting conflicts culminated in the Battle of Red Cliff where the vastly outnumbered Kingdoms of Xu and East Wu defended themselves against the massive imperial army on the banks of the Yangtze River.

Red Cliff has a distinctively Eastern feel to it and the constant pans, snap zooms and melodramatic dialogue, acting and music all evoke the types of Chinese language films that were made predominantly in Hong Kong from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Western audiences who have only previously seen ‘respectable’ Chinese language action films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers may not immediately warm to this extremely busy and operatic style of filmmaking but, as wonderful as those aforementioned films are, Red Cliff is more in synch with Hong Kong and Chinese genre films.

Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro)

Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro)

John Woo’s kinetic camerawork is present in Red Cliff, as are other elements of his distinctive visual style, but within the stylistic conventions of historical Chinese action/dramas. Woo’s typical thematic concerns are also here as the narrative of Red Cliff includes lots of grand statements about morality, duty, friendship, respect and honour. Long-term fans will also be pleased to know that Woo’s trademark uses of slow motion (albeit used more discretely than usual) and shots depicting white doves are also present and accounted for in Red Cliff.

The many battle scenes are intricate, inventive, highly improbable and completely exhilarating. The scale of some of the scenes evokes the great battle sequences from The Lord of the Rings films while other moments evoke Braveheart but without the pomposity. The climatic sequence is incredibly impressive in scope and the final showdown is absolutely nail biting. Red Cliff should probably not be relied upon for a serious depiction of Chinese history, but as a return-to-form John Woo film that evokes old-school Chinese historical action cinema, it delivers all the goods.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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