An abridged version of John Woo's massive Chi Bi (Red Cliff) released theatrically in North America a few weeks back to generally mixed reviews. Apparently, Woo had always intended to recut the 2 films released in China last year (Red Cliff and Red Cliff II, both with 2+ hour running times) into a single 2 ½ version for its North American theatrical release. While the shortened film garnered some positive reviews, it sounds as though the narrative thread might have got lost in the shuffle. Completely by coincidence, I happened to pick up the originals Red Cliff and Red Cliff II on Region 8 (OK for Boats and Airplanes accordingly to Joe) Blu-Ray in Chinatown around the same time. I watched (rewatched actually, I'd seen bootlegs of both parts last year, but the quality of the prints were a little suspect) and the finale last night.
OK …. a little background.
John Woo, for those not familiar with his work is a Hong Kong director with two certified masterpieces to his name, The Killer from 1989 and Hard Boiled from a couple of years later. He moved to Hollywood and delivered two more good ones, the vastly underrated Broken Arrow in '96 (mea culpa: I watched this a little stoned and it may not be as amazing as I recall) and Face-Off the following year. He then directed Mission Impossible 2 and after that drifted off the Hollywood A-list (ending up working on, of all things, video games). His return to China to undertake the massive Red Cliff project was highly anticipated by his considerable fan base and I don't think they'll be disappointed. I'm uncertain if I'd call Red Cliff an unqualified success, but it's certainly entertaining. I also think it would be wise to skip the American recut and just watch the original DVD editions instead (when we get them, that is).
Red Cliff I and II are big-ass movies - “huge” in fact. They sport a cast of about 25 main characters, gigantic sets, tens of thousands of extras, battles rivaling Jackson's LOTR trilogy and have their source in the stories of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese equivalent of the King Arthur legend. In a nutshell, the plot involves a massive army from the North invading two smaller kingdoms from the South, who are forced into an alliance to defend themselves. At $80M, it's the most expensive Asian-financed movie ever (and incidentally cost about the same as a Sandra Bullock direct-to-video rom-com does).
There's something rather old-fashioned about Woo's style of story telling and I don't know how well it will play with the uber-nihilist, hyper-post-modern, bludgeon-me-with-irony Inglourious Basterds set. Red Cliff has moments that border on corny and Woo concentrates much of the dramatic arc on ancient codes of military conduct, chivalry, honour and, much like the FBE back street boys, misty-eyed brother-in-arms man-love stuff. In more than a few ways (tone, to cite a big one) Red Cliff is reminiscent of an old duster (albeit one with a much larger budget and significantly more Asians) and as a result, I'm not sure if these films will find their bearings (or an audience) on this side of the Pacific. Red Cliff is at once a little out-of-sync with the cinematic times (and by extension the youngsters who tend to search out this kind of material) and yet it's possibly too foreign for the oldsters who might like it's themes.
A hard-to-recommend and yet extremely worthy film that needs about 20 minutes to let you decide if it's the best action/adventure/epic you've seen in a decade or whether you want to shut it off and rewatch a few It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes.
A strange one.