Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // March 26th, 2010
Destiny lies in the wind.
It has been a long time since I've seen a new John Woo movie that did it for me. This landmark achievement breaks the streak.
It's 208 A.D. and China's Han Dynasty is coming to a close. As is the case with most dynasties that end (e.g. the Chicago Bulls of the '90s), events will be messy and there's an excellent chance of warfare breaking out. Enter General Cao Cao, an ambitious warmonger who's convinced the Emperor to allow him to wage war against two opposing warlords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan.
Cao Cao loads up his massive fleet with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and heads out, forcing the two warlords to team up and dispatch their most trusted personnel to beat back the agressors: Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, Hero), super-general and all-around badass; and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a brilliant strategist. What unfolds is two and half hours of epic face-smashing, arrow impaling, and fire ship suicide missions.
John Woo has been dying to make this movie. The accompanying special features detail his gushing desire to put "The Battle of Red Cliff" -- one of China's most popular and beloved historical events -- on the big screen. And "big" is the operative word here, as Woo's eventual realization of that decade-spanning dream is shockingly humongous.
The word "epic" gets tossed around a lot and, as a result, has lost some of its edge as an adjective. But if any film deserves to be hit with the "epic" label, it's Red Cliff, an adventure that isn't content with saving a massive battle sequence for the end, but filling the entire runtime with massive battle sequences. I'll give John Woo the props: you write him a fat check and he'll make sure that money shows up on screen.
Woo wastes no time getting into the meat of the conflict, throwing up a short title card, helpfully introducing the audience to the major players, then letting the war play out. That's what Red Cliff absolutely is -- a full-blown war movie. There's a small subplot involving Zhou Yu's love interest (to be fair she does play a large tactical role), but the primary focus of Woo's storytelling is how an eclectic group of Alpha-male personalities teams up and plots their way to a legendary smackdown of a foe that greatly outnumbered and outclassed them.
I couldn't get enough of Red Cliff. The strategizing, the war room meetings, the execution -- it's a Risk junkie's wet dream, and Woo keeps the story plowing forward. The sweet war planning is broken up by actual war, which is astonishingly staged. The film opens up with a gigantic fracas, and it only gets bigger and cooler, culminating in a massive, 40-minute final siege that involves a Naval inferno, an uphill charge against a torrent of arrows, hyper spear tossing, cavalry charges, horse flambé, and hundreds upon hundreds of extras lying on the ground, prone. Simply glorious!
It's when the battles get more intimate that Red Cliff slips a bit. Largely built as a realistic look at old-school Chinese war, the realism stutters when our heroes square off against their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, as outlandish stunts and moderate wire-work make an appearance. These fights are still quite entertaining, but the shift in tone to the fantastic is unfortunate, jarring, and needless.
The theatrical version (condensed from the two-part 288-minute international edition) hits Blu-ray with sizzle. The 2.35:1, MPEG4 AVC, 1080p transfer is beautiful; rich, detailed, and pretty much everything you could want in a high-definition treatment of such a large-scale production. There is so much to drink in and the picture quality serves the action up with zeal, pushing the sweeping camera work and chaos of war. It's a masterful technical effort; as is the sound, a lively 5.1 DTS-HD mix that comes in both English and Mandarin; go with the Mandarin and spare yourself the awful dubbing.
Extras: a gigantic making-of documentary (unfortunately in standard-def fake widescreen) that runs as long as the feature film, an engaging interview with John Woo, storyboards, and a small HDNet look at the film.
Red Cliff is massive, cool, and a stunner on Blu-ray. Empty the bladder and sit yourself down.
Not Guilty. Though I do have to ask, if this release is the shorter version,
is it the Cliff's notes? Bam!
Review content copyright © 2010 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R