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Fengyi Zhang in Red Cliff.

3 out of 4 stars


Red Cliff (Chi Bi)

  • Directed by John Woo
  • Written by John Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu
  • Starring Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Fengyi
  • Classification: 14A

Fans know the story: John Woo was a lonely Christian kid who grew up in Hong Kong, keeping soul alive with movies and bible study. He wanted to be a minister. Taught ball-room dancing. Falling into action movies, Woo equipped gangsters with the pistols of his Hollywood western heroes and created a uniquely stylized genre - gun-fu films with balletic action sequences and Christian imagery.

Woo's best Hong Kong movies: The Killer (1991) and Hard-Boiled (1992) are wondrous creations - florid, delirious film raptures. Then came the inevitable Hollywood comeuppance. Face/Off was okay. Mission: Impossible II made money. But by the middle of this decade he was designing video games.

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Now the good news: In 2007, Woo returned home to recreate the tumultuous battles that marked the end of the Han Dynasty. Just under five hours, Red Cliff (Chi Bi) was a sensation in China, out-earning Titanic . The 21/2-hour North American version is finally out. As expected, it has gaping holes where back stories used to be. Still, it's a historical war movie with impressive sweep, strong characterizations and the kind of idiosyncratic flourishes that made Woo such an irresistible storyteller.

One quirk would be how the filmmaker, a Los Angeles native since 1993, conducts war as a football coach. Woo even includes a scene of ancient Chinese kickball, with hulking brutes pounding about in what looks like a Madden, NFL 220 AD video game. Elsewhere, generals of two armies huddle up and scheme elaborate plays to combat China's most illustrious and aggressive warlord Cao-Cao (Zhang Fengyi, Farewell My Concubine ). One military leader, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, Hard-Boiled ) even employs a special teams coach, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers ), who keeps track of the wind's direction - an important consideration for armies (and football teams) that rely on an aerial attack.

The film reminds us of Woo's greatest Hong Kong films. The generals' relationship is a meditation on honour. And, as always, the director choreographs violence as dance. Battles are often shot from above and unfold like elaborate, swirling Busby Berkeley production numbers.

Fans will be pleased to know that there are several scenes here where good guys stand back to back, battling the hordes and impossible odds - the classic Woo warrior pose. And yes, there are doves of peace and sad, lovely women who inspire heroism. Although the doves and heroines are a lot more bloody minded than we're used to seeing from the Hong Kong director.

All that said, Red Cliff is not quite vintage Woo. The Killer and Hard-Boiled are the films of a fevered artist. Had he stayed in Hong Kong, it's unlikely the director would have attempted to top them. Indeed, he might have lapsed into hallucinatory despair had he tried.

Red Cliff remains worth watching, however. Especially for fans of brawling, big screen spectacles. The principal actors - Leung, Kaneshiro and Fengyi - deliver commanding performances. And few filmmakers know how to fill a large canvas with colour and excitement like John Woo. His latest is the rare blockbuster worth busting a few blocks over.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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