Red Cliff (2008)

Posted in Reviews by - December 07, 2014
Red Cliff (2008)

John Woo returns to China to make his career-defining statement: a two part, five-hour historical war epic of Ben Hur proportions, which neatly balances his talent for Hollywood blockbusters with the sort of chivalrous, all-male swashbucklers he made in the 1970s and 80s. He even throws in some obligatory trademarks: a swooping, majestic flying sequence in which a dove transports covert messages between army camps, and the film ends in a Mexican stand-off with swords replacing guns. He also manages to personalise the super-charged battle sequences with an emotional depth; never an easy thing when dealing with a cast of thousands and a budget which looks like it could clear China’s national debt. Part of the movie’s charm is the ever-enigmatic Tony Leung, who reunites with Woo for the first time since 1992’s Hard Boiled. Leung can elevate any film and displays a learned, distilled greatness like no other. As Zhou Yu, viceroy to China’s rebellious south lands at the end of the Han dynasty, he is a strategic military leader who must tactically decipher a cunning plan to take on the overwhelming strength of the traitorous Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), who manipulates the Emperor into launching a full-scale invasion of the south as a plot to instill himself as leader of the nation. Cao Cao also has the hots for Zhou Yu’s pregnant wife, which further fans the flames and brings into question his true motives. The film eventually feels like a highly tactical lesson in Roman-like battle defenses, utilising three giant set-pieces to highlight ground formations, germ warfare and firepower. It’s indulgent, sure, but not without moments of magic, like Woo’s digitally-enhanced landscapes which show a desire to channel David Lean on top of his favourite Sam Peckinpah.

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