Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Released yesterday on DVD: "Red Cliff"

Grade: B

In a six-year stretch beginning in 1986, John Woo released a series of balletic, ultraviolent crime thrillers that would rank among the most influential films of the last quarter-century. They took a hyperkinetic, Hong Kong style of action moviemaking out of the grind house and into the art house (and the video store), from which it would eventually become the default mode for any number of big-budget Hollywood directors.

They also set the future course of Hong Kong cinema, taking it away from its martial arts roots and toward the realm of the operatic police procedural.

After Hard Boiled in 1992, Woo became a Hollywood director himself, making fast-moving but largely forgettable movies. (The best was probably the nukes-on-a-train story Broken Arrow.) After Paycheck in 2003, he went dark as far as feature films were concerned.

Now he's back, in two senses: back making movies in Asia and back in video stores with Red Cliff, a nearly two-and-a-half-hour historical epic set in the third century that reunites him with Tony Leung, one of the stars of Hard Boiled. It would be nice to report that he's also back on top of his game, but Red Cliff, while handsome and intelligent and perfectly easy to sit through, never really approaches the visceral tug of Woo's Hong Kong hits.

Loosely based on the 14th-century Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which recounts events in the waning Han dynasty more than a millennium earlier, Red Cliff has one of the most familiar of war movie or western setups: the outnumbered good guys scheming to defeat a vastly larger force.

In this case, though, the good guys - a pair of small southern China kingdoms whose forces are led by the viceroy Zhou Yi (Leung) - number in the tens of thousands, and the bad guys, the Han army led by the megalomaniacal general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), in the hundreds of thousands.

Woo, who can make romantic poetry out of a battle among 20 men in the confines of a teahouse, seems defeated, or at least defused, by this increase in scale. The battle scenes, which involve vast fleets of mostly computer-generated ships, sky-darkening volleys of arrows and the heroic, self-sacrificial storming of ramparts, are no better or worse than what any number of competent Hollywood (or Chinese) directors can turn out. And it's not that this sort of large-scale action can't be infused with feeling - Akira Kurosawa proved than it can in Kagemusha and Ran not long before Woo was making his breakout films.

Watching Red Cliff, you realize that Woo was always best as a miniaturist: the memorable action sequences in movies like Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled are a series of tiny, split-second set pieces, a slide down a banister here, a glance between buddies there. Red Cliff has a few similar moments, in the byplay between Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro as a military strategist and in some of Leung's (or his stunt double's) battlefield acrobatics. But they're just grace notes amid the grinding mechanics of deploying the troops and moving the story along. (That might not be the case in the five-hour version of the film released in Asia and also available now on DVD.)

One thing that hasn't changed since 1992 is the reassuring presence of Leung, one of the world's last true matinee idols. His combination of Zen-like calm and wild expressiveness, centered in his pixieish eyes, serves equally well whether he is playing the tortured aesthete for Wong Kar-wai, the murderous bureaucrat for Ang Lee or the action hero for Woo. Not even body armor and an ancient helmet, let alone a cast of thousands, can contain him.

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