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STUDIO: Magnolia Home Entertainment
MSRP: $26.98
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes


- The Making of an Epic: Red Cliff

- Interview with John Woo: The Carrier’s Flight from Concept to Creation

- HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff

- Storyboards

- Trailers

The Pitch
Director John Woo returns to China and reboots his career with a big-budget historical epic. 

The Humans
Cast:Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen. Director: John Woo

The Nutshell
Taking place in 208 AD, China, Red Cliff tells the story of power hungry General Cao Cao’s attempt to eradicate the two Southern warlords that refuse to surrender. They make their stand at Red Cliff, as both sides attempt to come up with a strategy to win the war.

The Lowdown
If everything I had read was true, this version of Red Cliff should’ve been terrible. Released in China as two almost 2 1/2 hour movies in 2008 and 2009, John Woo’s epic film was edited into one film for its US release. A lot of reviews I’d read from people who had seen the two films (which are also available on DVD and Blu-Ray) made sure to point out how inferior the US version was. Therefore, I dreaded having to watch this supposed bastardization of Woo’s return to form. So, color me surprised when I found Red Cliff to be an engaging, entertaining and wonderfully epic film. It’s easily the best film Woo has made in years, and one of the better epic battle films I’ve seen in a while.

The ancient Chinese knew how to organize a booze cruise.

The “epic” is a hard film to pull off. After Braveheart and Gladiator, Hollywood has churned out quite a few, and almost none of them have succeeded at the box office or with critics (Troy, King Arthur, etc.). The filmmakers seem to forget that just watching CG enhanced armies run toward each other and clash does not a successful film make. But, the filmmakers behind Red Cliff seem to have learned from these mistakes–making the movie about the strategy and planning that goes into these battles and managing to develop a few of the characters in the process.

In the 3rd century, the crazier the facial hair, the more bad-ass you were.

Though the film is about the conflict between Cao Cao and the warlords, Sun Quan and Liu Bei, the focus of the film is really on their strategists, Zhou Yu and Kongming. So much attention is paid to what strategy to use at what opportunity, which really draws the viewer into each battle in a way that I haven’t experienced since Braveheart. Even better, the strategies aren’t completely revealed until the battles are being fought, so there’s an element of discovery to the fights, instead of two battle lines simply crashing into each other. There’s a strategy called “the Turtle” that the warlords use that leads the enemy into a maze-like trap that is simply a joy to watch unfold. There’s also some sneaky ways that each side uses to hinder the other between battles that are just as clever as the conflicts themselves.

“Madame, where is your hand?”

The weaknesses of the film lie mainly in the character development. No one outside of Konming and Zhou Yu feel like more than sketches of human beings, but there’s little for the other characters to do besides react to the strategies the two present them with and fight in the battles. General Cao Cao is the only other character who has a little depth to him, and the film avoids portraying him as the mustache-twirling villain that I thought they would after his first few scenes. Another problem I had was that Kongming does nothing in the final battle. I understand that he is a strategistl, but he is the character we’ve been with through most of the movie and then he disappears pretty much as soon as the final conflict begins. There’s also a problem with the enemy and the heroes wearing very similar looking costumes, which makes for some confusing fights, but this only happens occasionally. Also, a sub-plot involving Zhou You’s wife (Xiao Qiao) and Cao Cao feels underdeveloped, which wouldn’t have hindered the film had the last 10 minutes of the film not relied so heavily on that plot point.

A new party game has caught on in China, where the player is given 2 pictures and must decide which one is General Cao Cao and which is an actual Chow Chow dog.

Almost nothing about Red Cliff feels like the John Woo of the last 10 years, which is a compliment. The action is wonderfully directed, and the film has as much restraint as you can expect from an epic of this sort; the wire-fu is minimal, and the histrionics are kept to a minimum (even the scene involving Woo’s trademark dove makes sense). I actually look forward to seeing the full version of the film, as I suspect many of my complaints of underdeveloped characters and plotlines will fall by the wayside. But, if you don’t have nearly 5 hours to spare, I can easily recommend this version to any devotees of Asian cinema, fans of the “epic” film and long-suffering Woo fans who’ve been waiting for him to return to form. 

The Package
The DVD is far from packed with special features, but the “Making of an Epic” feature is actually a pretty clear-eyed view of the problems the filmmakers faced. It’s only 28 minutes, but it shows what a toll the rainy season took on the production and how demanding Woo was on his crew and actors. One crew member recounts a nightmare he had of being forced to work on another film with all the same sets and Woo, which illustrates just how difficult the production was on its crew. Woo doesn’t speak much, but he seems to understand how difficult it was and expresses a lot of gratitude for everyone’s efforts.

“The Carrier’s Flight” feature shows what went into making an integral shot involving a dove that flies from one camp to another, giving the viewer the lay of the land. Woo says that it was the most expensive special effects shot ever, which I find hard to believe post-Avatar, but it’s an interesting, if non-essential, feature. The other feature is mostly fluff made to entice US audiences to see the film by saying how much it made in Asia (which didn’t work, since the film made less than $1 million in the US).

7.5 out of 10