Wow. Mr. Woo went and grew up on me!

As a film lover I came of age in Austin, Texas (specifically The University of Texas School of Radio, Television, and Film) in the mid/late 1990s. For those of you in the know you recognize that I was at one of the epicenters of the “indie” movement. Granted, there had been very similar movements before, but this was the first one ever market as such. In truth, it was the birth of the studio indie era. Say what you will, but a film with a 20 million dollar budget, produced by Fox is a studio film even if they call themselves Fox Searchlight.

Now, being in such an indie heaven, and a guy, there were two things that would come to dominate my film world; the first being Quentin Tarantino (he was UNESCAPABLE in the mid 90’s), and the second being Hong Kong action cinema. As I lived about two miles from “I Love Video,” (one of the best indie video stores in the nation) I found myself able to worship freely at the altar of Chow Yun Fat, Ringo Lam, Jackie Chan, Tony Leung, Yeun Biao, and Sammo Hung with regularity (thanks to a large selection of HK action films of questionable origin, and by questionable I mean ones that had blue screens at the beginning with the words “REC” and “PLAY” in the corners.).

Since those days I have soured on the HK a bit. I don’t know if it’s maturity as a person (the action isn’t all I need anymore), sophistication as a film lover (smaller, more subtle things move me more these days), or burnout (I watch A LOT of these movies), but they just don’t really do it for me anymore. This mostly goes for the director of this film, Mr. John Woo.

Once upon a time I walked into a Blockbuster Video and picked up one of the three John Woo movies they carried (Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, and The Killer), having some experience with Asian cinema (I’d watched some Kurosawa in High School), I decided to go with the most accessible looking of the three, A Better Tomorrow. Thinking, “a family melodrama is a family melodrama.”

Little did I know. Little did I know.

I quickly owned copies of all three and watched them repeatedly. Then, I discovered “I Love,” and my life was over.

At this time, something wonderful happened, John Woo came to America! All I could see were bigger budgets, bigger explosions, and bigger gunfights, if anyone could figure a way to have a guy shooting 3 guns at the same time, it was Woo.

Then, something less than wonderful happened. I watched his American films. How the hell do you go from “Hard Boiled,” to “Hard Target?” From there, my worst nightmare began to unfold. Could my favorite action director really… suck?

Well, I won’t say yes, I won’t say no. What I will say is, “Hard Target,” “Broken Arrow,” “Face/Off,” “Mi:2,” “Paycheck,” and “Windtalkers.”

Something was wrong. He hadn’t grown. He wasn’t doing anything new, different, or exciting. He was spinning his wheels and basically parodying himself.

It was with that in mind that I sat down to watch “Red Cliff.”

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How was it?

It was good, really good.

This movie is EPIC. It is epic in scope, epic in story, epic in visual style. Everything about it is big. I am a fan of epic films. “Lawrence of Arabia” is possibly my favorite movie of all time. This isn’t “Lawrence,” but it definitely took some notes.

It is the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs, one of the most important moments in Chinese history. Now, it is hard to follow at times. I admit that has more to do with my total ignorance of Chinese history. These are legendary figures, and I figure most Chinese people have some frame of reference for.

Basically, it is the attempt of The Han Dynasty to take over the southlands of China and gain control of the territory controlled by warlords and unify the country. In addition to being vastly outnumbered, the southerners have to contend with years old feuding between their factions. The only advantage they have is superior strategy, and a more versatile group of warriors.

This is as simple a synopsis as I can provide. The story is very involved and to attempt any further summary would only add confusion.

What I will say is, this is a very good movie. Yes, the old John Woo conventions are there. There are doves (thankfully they are not fire, bullet, and explosion proof this time), slow motion, and repetition of shots. But the overall production is so much bigger, more expansive, and more advanced than anything he has done before.

John Woo has grown up. The visuals are stunning. The camera work is complex, and moving. The character development is subtle and effective.

This is the John Woo I always knew was out there.

In the past what has really made Woo stand out was the complex relationships between his characters. In “The Killer,” it’s the camaraderie between the cop and the professional killer, in “Hard Boiled,” it’s the interplay between the deep undercover cop and the hard boiled detective obsessed with his capture, and in “A Better Tomorrow,” it’s a man trying to help a younger brother who hates and doesn’t trust him,

“Red Cliff” focuses on a group of warlords (two in particular) who form a team and use their cunning and intellect to take on a much larger army. The development of these relationships make the film.

The interactions between Zho Yu (Tony Leung), San Quan (Chang Chen) are particularly strong. Both men are powerful charismatic leaders, both men are extremely intelligent and cunning, and both men realize the strengths brought to the table by the other.

This is a long movie, but by no means a dull one. At times you do feel the length, but there isn’t anything in it than can be removed without losing something vital from the script. If you want to see an action director grow up and do something really spectacular than I strongly recommend this film. This isn’t a passing, “hey, it’s Saturday afternoon, let’s watch “Red Cliff,” so bear that in mind going into it. This film is an investment, but one that is well worth it. It’s not your typical John Woo but, in this case, that is a good thing



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