Red Cliff

Posted: November 24, 2009

One of the signature motifs of a John Woo film - the white dove - gets its moment in the spotlight (well, more like three long minutes) in the amazing Red Cliff.

There the bird is, soaring over vast military encampments, across the wide Yangtze River to a base on the far shores, where thousands upon thousands of soldiers await the call to battle.

Woo's doves have fluttered their way across many, if not all, of the Hong Kong-gone-Hollywood director's hard-boiled face-offs, but here, in his wide-screen historical epic, the bird represents more than just peace in the midst of chaos.

Like a drone spy plane, the dove is on a reconnaissance mission, assessing the enemy's forces, and providing the audience with the lay of the land. The point-of-view is the bird's, the technology is CG, but the effect is pure cinema. It's breathtaking.

Set in A.D. 208, and describing the storied battle between a power-mad general and an uneasy alliance of two warlords and their clans, Red Cliff is an awesome and compelling spectacle. Adapted from the beloved Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and already a huge hit in Asian countries (where audiences saw a version almost twice as long as this one's 2 1/2 hours), the film teems with immense conflagrations, generals plotting strikes and counterstrikes, brilliant deceptions and clanging swordplay, missiles of fire, a rain of arrows, balletic combat and brute force.

But Woo's great success is in putting his characters - particularly Tony Leung's heroic war counselor, Takeshi Kaneshiro's wily military tactician and You Yong's besieged nobleman - onto this kinetic chessboard and giving them real dimension. It may take a while to figure out who's who, what's what and where the alliances (and betrayals) lie - there's an establishing title sequence narration in English - but once you do, the relationships between the key players add emotional resonance to this gorgeous tableau of conflict.

The film, too, not only addresses and examines the powers of man, but the forces of nature. There's much more going on here than choreographed warfare.

At one point, Sun Tzu's The Art of War is cited by a character. Red Cliff literally offers a rendering of the art of war: From landscape shots that have the serene beauty of a Han Dynasty watercolor, to its dramatic naval engagements and thundering cavalry charges, this is magnificent filmmaking, and a magnificent film.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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