- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

John Woo has been absent from the big screen for a while now, his last major film being 2003’s “Paycheck.” He returned with a bang last year in China, debuting his two-part epic “Chi bi” (“Red Cliff”) to rave reviews and a box-office bonanza. The first chapter knocked off “Titanic” to become the highest-grossing film in China’s history.

That four-hour epic has been condensed into one 2½-hour movie for release in the United States. Those looking for the full experience can track down a region-free Blu-ray disc on eBay; those looking to cut to the chase and experience some expertly choreographed battle sequences with a minimum of back story can stick to the American release.

There is a legitimate trade-off between the two versions. Those with little knowledge of the Han dynasty’s waning years (the third century A.D.) might be a little confused as to the power dynamics at play.

It seems that Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) is in the process of overthrowing the Han emperor and needs to conquer the “southlands” — governed by Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Yong You) — to finish the job.

Sun and Liu must rely on their foremost advisers, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), respectively, to take the battle to Cao Cao, who has encamped at the Red Cliffs.

In the U.S. version, all of this is secondary to the battle sequences, which are both numerous and impressively put together. Mr. Woo has always had a knack with action, and this movie is no exception: The hand-to-hand combat that takes up a good portion of the film is exciting and well-executed.

Perhaps even more impressively, Mr. Woo takes the time to show how the battle plans of Zhou and Zhuge come together. There is an emphasis on strategy that you don’t often see in the sword-and-sandal-epic genre; the most entertaining sequence might come at sea without a single blow traded as Zhuge captures 100,000 of his enemies’ arrows.

The actors are all top-notch, Mr. Leung in particular. A veteran of Asian cinema best known to Western audiences for his work with Wong Kar Wai in such movies as “Ashes of Time,” he has an innate grace and quiet ferocity that make for a fine combination in “Red Cliff.”

TITLE: “Red Cliff”
RATING: R (sequences of epic warfare)
CREDITS: Directed by John Woo
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.redclifffilm.com/

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