The type of robustly entertaining, proudly old-fashioned battle epic that's usually described as the sort of movie they don't make anymore (mostly because they don't), the 280-minute cut of John Woo's historical extravaganza Red Cliff delivers more bang for the buck than any recent Hollywood action flick. Thanks to Cinematheque curator-guru John Ewing, Woo completists will be able to revel in the most expensive Chinese-language production ever made. Both parts of Red Cliff will screen at the Cinematheque in an exclusive area engagement. Woo's magnum opus is the first major film event of 2010, as well as a great appetizer for marathon-gorging at the upcoming Cleveland International Film Festival.
A lushly re-imagined, hyper-romanticized account of actual historical events that are as well known and widely celebrated throughout Asia as the stories of Gettysburg and Valley Forge are in the U.S., Red Cliff pits the vastly outnumbered armies of two small southern kingdoms against the battalion of corrupt Han general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) in third-century A.D. China. Spectacular battle scenes — all shot on a humongous, cast-of-thousands scale — ensue. There are also terrific performances (including a masterly turn as a good-guy viceroy by Wong Kar-wai muse Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who was a last-minute replacement for Chow Yun-fat), modern-day parallels (and metaphors) to contemplate and even a piquant love story at the core that's positively swoon-worthy. Woo has clearly studied at the altar of John Ford ("When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"), and the quasi-mythical personages/archetypes who traverse his vast, sumptuously embroidered canvas would be right at home in any classic Ford Western.
The two-and-a-half hour version of Red Cliff that played at the Cedar Lee briefly last December sacrificed niceties of political nuance and characterization for pure adrenaline. Yet properly divided into two separate movies just like it was in Asian markets, Red Cliff now seems like one of the Hong Kong action maestro's greatest works. It's certainly his most satisfying film in more than a decade (1997's Face/Off was Woo's last masterpiece). Action fans should be advised that most of the jaw-dropping spectacle appears in the second half. But it would be a shame to skip the equally engrossing table-setting first part.