Reality check 

Woo wins the battle but loses the war

I've noticed that a lot of people I know are good at doing impressions of one another—when the person being imitated isn't around, of course. Invocations is more like it: summoning the essence of that person in a few speech mannerisms with maybe a tic thrown in, to add an extra dimension of annoyingness or endearingness to an anecdote or complaint. I shudder to think how people imitate me when I'm not around. Impressions, and persistent nicknames, don't necessarily reflect peaks of self-confidence.

People who invent trademarks for themselves, however, are just asking to be made fun of. Donald Sutherland's little cuckoo whistle in the original M.A.S.H. was annoying enough the first time around. I never expected to have to sit through it again in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was extra annoying because little movie references like these are an Anderson trademark. So a trademark within a trademark. If your high school was anything like mine, there was always that one kid who wore the fedora all the time—resolute in his self-conscious differentness, clinging to it, even. Wes Anderson is that kid, except instead of a fedora it was a cravat or a smoking jacket.

John Woo has his fedora, too: It's the doves he always manages to squeeze in, at least once per picture. They supposedly represent the soul of a character. No matter that movie logic generally takes a break to allow for the doves' appearance, since Woo movies operate under their own logic anyway. I've generally enjoyed his pictures when he sticks to smallish casts and gangster themes, e.g. Face/Off and Hard Boiled, not so much when he wanders into history, as in the blustering Windtalkers. Among other Windtalkers complaints, Woo's heavily choreographed, balletic violence—so perfectly suited to his crime movies—was completely out of place in a brutal WWII battle. I don't remember where the doves came in.

Red Cliff stands on promising ground for bloody action: a tale of Chinese warlords and marauding hordes in the twilight of the Han dynasty. It's the most expensive Asian movie ever made, and, the inevitable CGI enhancements notwithstanding, Woo and company managed to get a lot of those yuan on screen in a very big way, with multitudes of costumed extras—over 100,000 of them, mostly soldiers on loan from the Chinese army—adding real old-fashioned screen value to huge battle scenes.

click to enlarge Epic battles are no place to horse around.
  • Epic battles are no place to horse around.

The plot: Do you need one? Anyway, it's too convoluted to go into, and the two-and-a-half-hour American release of Red Cliff is only a condensed version of a much longer epic released in two installments in the Chinese-speaking world. All you need to know is: Chinese warlords.

And it's epic, by gum, with nary a second's pause for reflection between chase scenes, battle scenes and fast-paced courtly intrigues. If you can survive the initial onslaught of characters to remember (there's intermittent narration by a guy who sounds a lot like he makes his living doing voice-overs for action movie trailers), Red Cliff gets going very fast. You don't have to wait long for the battles to begin.

As in Windtalkers, something about Red Cliff inflames my sense of historical verisimilitude. There's no rule, of course, stating that historical dramas must be completely true to their time periods. Still, it's a quibble that so much of the fighting in Red Cliff seems patently unrealistic. I dunno, maybe the Turtle Formation was a real battle tactic, but the realism-craving part of me always runs into trouble with a movie that invests colossal amounts of money and energy into creating a certain historical period only to populate it with acrobats and circus strongmen. I mean, fight action is why you go see a John Woo movie, but Red Cliff's showpiece skirmishes and stylized single combats don't jibe with my admittedly old-fashioned, Japanese-flavored tastes in Asian battle epics—arrow operas, if you like. Having only seen Red Cliff, will people still have the patience for Ran or Throne of Blood? Pondering Red Cliff's flights of digital arrows, I thought wistfully of Throne of Blood's flights of real ones.

Akira Kurosawa once ordered a castle set destroyed and started over because the nails the carpenters used were from the wrong time period. For as much work as Woo and his actors put into action and choreography, lots of little annoying mistakes make it into his movies, like the poor synchronization between sound and picture in the scene of a kid playing his flute in Red Cliff. He puts all this time and effort into battle choreography and CGI arrows and he can't even take the time to get a flute right? Unforgivable. Some slight redistribution of priorities is required. It only takes a few things to make a movie a bad movie, as directors more circumspect than Woo have paid hundreds of millions to discover empirically.

In any case, Woo's peccadilloes don't add up to a ruined Red Cliff. There's hardly a chance of ruining something with so many huge battles. The movie gets by purely on action, constant action, which, if you're a John Woo fan, is what you've paid to see.

Red Cliff opens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, Jan. 1.

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