Red Cliff DVD review

John Woo heads back to China and delivers his best film in a long, long time: it's Red Cliff

Has there ever been a more apt title for a movie than John Woo’s 2003 effort Paycheck? An unremarkable and almost-anonymous outing from one of the most visually distinct directors of modern action cinema, it marked the end (for the time being, at least) of Woo’s love affair with Hollywood. 

Having arrived on the crest of a bullet-ridden wave following his Chinese masterpieces such as The Killer, Bullet In The Head and Hard Boiled, the early kineticism and balletic beauty of Hard Target and Face/Off were nowhere to be found. Woo seemed bored. And so were audiences.

But now John Woo is back, and in more ways than one. His first feature film since Paycheck, and his first in his homeland of China since 1992’s Hard Boiled, Red Cliff is unmistakably a John Woo film. Based on the true story of the 208 A.D. Battle of Red Cliffs between Han Empire forces and the rebellious warlords of the west and south, it’s a film Woo’s apparently been wanting to make for over 20 years. And boy, is it worth the wait.

Inspired by the likes of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, Red Cliff is the type of film the words sumptuous and breathtaking were designed for. But this being Woo, it’s also violent and filled with his trademark action beats – slow motion, enormous explosions, a pigeon, and even a man carrying a baby mid-fight. And if it’s sometimes clunky and feels a little rushed, you can’t blame Woo for that.

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Edited down to a single two-and-a-half hour movie from the two-part five hour epic it was released as in Asia, this one-disc release of Red Cliff doesn’t give the film’s supporting players and underlying themes much room to breathe. It also shoehorns in an American narrator for the opening five minutes to bring us up to speed on who everyone is. Clumsy, yes, but even at half the length, Woo still has plenty of time to work his magic.

Woo owes a clear debt to The Seven Samurai, both visually in his mimicking of Kurosawa’s screen wipes for certain stretches, and structurally, in having his group of warlords form the basis for much of the running time. Determined to protect their people from the invading Prime Minister Cao Cao, they are figures we’ve seen countless times before in the Woo oeuvre: men who were born to fight but want nothing more than to live a peaceful life. “Every sword must be unsheathed some day,” remarks one of them. With Woo, that’s normally the case sooner rather than later.

As you’d expect or, indeed, hope, Red Cliff‘s battle scenes are staggering. Employing Hollywood-style CGI on occasion, but mostly relying on incredible stunts, wire work and an army of extras, Woo doesn’t disappoint when it comes to set pieces. They’re frequently jaw-dropping, combining the choreography of his modern action films with a scale and breadth reminiscent of Ben Hur

But, for all the spectacle on show, it’s a film that thrills in the strategy of battle as much as the fight of it. Scenes of the warlords and their strategist trying to second guess Cao Cao and his vast 300,000 strong army that dwarves their 30,000 are the equal to anything on the battlefield. Buoyed by a wonderfully lively score, the film bounces along with a levity rarely seen in films of this size. 

Two and a half hours go by in the blink of an eye. And while it isn’t without its problems – supporting players come and go without as much as a by-your-leave on occasion – you sense those will be remedied in the special edition DVD release that includes the full five hours.

Woo once made a great Jean Claude Van Damme film in Hard Target. He’s done something equally as impressive here in revitalising the historical epic and his own career after that last Hollywood outing. Here’s hoping Woo’s next sees him just as inspired.

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The disc contents beyond the film are disappointing. There’s a 15 minute interview with Woo that’s more rambling than insightful, and a terribly stitched together behind the scenes featurette that barely makes any sense, just a series of unrelated B-roll footage  That’s your lot

The Film:

5 stars
The Disc:

Red Cliff is out now.

Review discs were provided by

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5 out of 5