Red Cliff

June 18, 2009


John Woo has been swanning about in the West making films of varying quality for ages, and because he’s not really been on the blockbuster radar for a while it’s been easy to dismiss him as past it. However, with Red Cliff he’s back in his element, making films in his native language and indulging the cultural and historical heritage of his homeland. Set in 208 A.D it portrays a China divided between competing Warlords, and the plot sees two disparate warrior groups join forces to take on the overly ambitious Cao Cao. The small band faces off against Cao Cao’s million man army on land and water at the titular Red Cliff, and what ensues is two and a half hours of epic, ancient action.

If you’ve ever played the Dynasty Warriors series of video games then you’ll understand the kind of territory and scale that Red Cliff is covering. There are tons and tons of disposable arrow fodder foot soldiers, but the main characters are virtually invincible, all uniquely quirky in costume and tone and all capable of pulling off ridiculous feats of acrobatic violence. The plot in itself is told initially through a ridiculous American voice over which thankfully is dropped quickly for less intrusive narrative methods. The characters are vivid and engaging and audience empathy is suitable heightened as we root for the underdogs who will of course triumph in the end, though this doesn’t feel like a historically accurate representation of events because of the supernatural abilities of certain characters.

The action set pieces, and there are tons of them, are all masterfully choreographed and shot. Each one raises the bar in terms of scale and body count, and there’s enough gore onscreen to satisfy the bloodthirsty without offending the more mild mannered. Though I’ve mentioned the considerable length you shouldn’t be put off because the time is filled with action and not dialogue, keeping the plot simple and producing what can feel like a protracted last stand. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation that the film cuts to the chase and maintains what would be the final battle for much of the latter half.

The main area in which the film falls flat is the CGI special effects. The fight scenes which use lots of extras, wire work and old school blood effects work brilliantly, and the balletic action is always visceral and engaging. However, as soon as a computer generated element is introduced things are less impressive. Large scale battles shot from the sky feel false as inexpertly animated and rendered soldiers and horses fill the screen, though a CGI dove is perhaps the worst offender. Whilst this won’t detract from your enjoyment of the film much, there are better examples of CGI out there. What it does do is draw attention once again to the fact that whilst CGI has come on incredibly, when used in opposition to other methods of live action film making it is still inadequate for some purposes.

So. Conclusions. Red Cliff is a good epic action film that’s light on historical integrity but all the better for it. It’s also a reminder that few people can do sustained action in such an inventive and effective way as Woo. If you go and see this film and enjoy it, then The Warlords should be up your street and is more engaging and better written if lacking the large scale of action offered by Red Cliff.

On a final note it’s interesting that Red Cliff was released in two parts in China, totaling over four hours in length, but the western release is a combination of the two. All I can say is I can’t imagine that the two parts were better than the single part version we’ve got, and this perhaps accounts for the lack of ponderous dialogue or explicit historical exposition.

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