Hong Kong action guru John Woo returns to classic form with his epic war saga, “Red Cliff”. Dripping with lush detail, spectacular battles, and superb acting performances, Red Cliff is a nuanced approach to combat rarely seen on screen in modern times. Instead of bludgeoning his audience with violence and blood, Woo concentrates on the strategy and human component to battle. This focus combined with the immense action scenes make Red Cliff 2009’s best war film by far.

The Battle of Red Cliff is one of the most important military engagements in Chinese history. In the third century A.D., the figurehead Emperor Han (Wang Ning) is forced by his bloodthirsty Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) to consolidate power throughout China. Cao Cao takes his massive army and navy to wipe out the provincial rulers in the south. Fearing Cao Cao’s lust for power, military strategist Liu Bei (Yao Yung) flees to the south to warn the southern generals of the impending attack. Under the leadership of General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), the southern army fortifies their position on the peak of Red Cliff. Vastly outnumbered, they use the cunning of Liu Bei and the leadership of General Zhou to outwit Cao Cao and even the odds against a ruthless enemy.

Wars are fought with tactics, battle plans. War films usually gloss over the strategy and focus on the actual battle. Red Cliff does not. It is a true exposition of how the battle of Red Cliff was fought. We see scene after scene of the southern leadership arguing and formulating plans. The weather, sickness, number of ships, all of the little things that go into a plan of attack is discussed at length. What John Woo has done so successfully here is make these scenes an effective part of the overall drama. We are fascinated by the duplicity and engagement between the factions. Strike, counter strike, it is a brilliant game of brinksmanship that unfolds before our eyes. And with a nearly three hour runtime, these scenes are flawlessly staged in the dramatic build up to the epic climax. John Woo has long been considered a great action director. But he takes a monumental leap as a filmmaker here in his understanding of meter and timing in a story. Red Cliff flows like a breeze, no easy task considering the sheer volume of the story.

Do not be disheartened by my talk of strategy and drama, because the action in Red Cliff is incredible as well. Huge battle scenes on land and water are staged seamlessly by John Woo and his action choreographers. I’m talking hundreds of extras in a ballet of destruction that will have you glued to your chair. Woo is famous for his camera work and he’s at his best here. We see the various battles from numerous perspectives, edited skilfully to depict a complete view of the action. So you can easily see the strategy work or fail. This is the key to hammering in the dramatic struggle faced by the southern army. War is hell and repelling Cao Cao means survival.

Red Cliff is Tony Leung’s first collaboration with John Woo since their action masterpiece, Hard Boiled. These guys should work together for every film if they are this good as actor and director. I worship at the altar of Tony Leung. He’s never done an English language film, but he is clearly the greatest actor of modern Asian cinema. Leung moves effortlessly between genres. It’s been years since he’s done an action film and he hasn’t missed a beat at all. Leung owns this film as General Zhou. He commands the screen with his presence, an expert in subtlety and restraint.

Red Cliff was released in Asia last year, and is available on DVD as well. But I implore you to see this film in the theater. John Woo has not been this good since 1997’s Face Off. It is a triumphant return to his roots in Asian cinema; Red Cliff is one of the best films of the year. Not to be missed.

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