R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Return…

Hey everybody! Welcome back to the Bad Ass Cinema! Sorry for my month long hiatus, but unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances cut off my internet connection here, and I’m just now getting to rejoin the 21st century. Hope everyone was able to send off 2008 in style, whether you partied the night away or got arrested for shooting guns in the air or killed a hobo or whatever your annual tradition is. I know I missed a lot of my “Year End” obligations (The Bad Asses of 2008, etc.) here in the column, and I hope to be remedying that in the next couple weeks.

Actually, it was kind of nice to have the pressure off over the holidays and just be able to enjoy the huge pile of blu-rays and video games I got for Christmas. Nothing puts you in the holiday spirit quite like watching John Rambo turn bad guys into hamburger, Robocop smash a dude through a wall, or watching John McClane shoot huge chunks out of guy’s flesh in high definition. Sometimes, it really is like watching these movies again for the first time. One of the most awesome gifts I got at the end of the holiday though, was a flick that I’d never actually seen before, but one I’m probably going to watch over and over again from now on; John Woo’s new movie, Red Cliff.

I’ve made no bones in this column and in my other writings about my love for John Woo movies. I think it’s possible that Woo is one of the best, if the not THE best Action director in the history of cinema. Hard Boiled, Bullet in the Head, and The Killer are masterpieces with an energy I haven’t seen in movie with 40 times their budgets. The guy can just make art out of violence and mayhem like I’ve never seen anyone else do, that was until he came to America.

Sure, Woo made some really exhilarating Action fare when he went stateside. Face/Off showed he could still make a “John Woo movie” within the Hollywood system and ranks as the best Action flick by either Nicolas Cage or John Travolta. Mission: Impossible II has many detractors, but for Summer movie awesomeness you could do much worse. Even Hard Target and Broken Arrow have their fans. The thing is, is that none of these movie are better than the films Woo was making in Hong Kong with miniscule budgets.

Films like Windtalkers and Paycheck only seemed to further his decline rather than elevate Woo to the ranks of important film makers, even when many Action directors were ripping off his style and making names for themselves. There for a while you would hear Woo’s name attached to several projects, but then they’d all fall through. Thankfully, Woo decided to go back home, take what he’d learned in Hollywood about big budget movie making, and still present audiences with the incredible energy that he’d once displayed when he’d have Chow Yun Fat smoking bad guys with a gun in each hand.

Of course, reading about Red Cliff’s production, you would think Woo’s string of bad luck was continuing. There was the departure of Chow Yun Fat, which would have been the first time the actor and director would have reunited since Hard Boiled in the early 90’s, and then other members of the cast such as Tony Leung started leaving as well. There was even an accident that lead to the death of a stunt man, as well as problems with sets and locations, including a flood that seriously damaged one soundstage, and threatened to derail the project, which was reportedly coming in at $80 million, the most expensive Chinese movie in history.

Seeing the movie now though, it is with great pleasure that I say that John Woo is finally back and in a big way. A really big way. While I’m sad that Woo’s tenure in Hollywood didn’t go as well as many had hoped, if the film maker keeps up with making films on the same scale or more importantly, with this much energy, the man still has a long career ahead of him.
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Red Cliff Starring Tony Leung, Fengyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Jun Hu. Directed by John Woo

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when it came to Red Cliff. John Woo is one of my favorite directors, so I was excited for the opportunity for him to branch out, but Woo’s best films have usually been stage in periods at least close to a modern age, and with very few exceptions his memorable works contain some huge pyrotechnics, and slow motion, two-fisted gun play. Sure, I think Woo is a world class film maker with a lot of passion, but watching the director take on an epic costume drama with massive hand to hand battles instead of wall to wall shootouts had me a little worried. I wasn’t sure his style of film making would translate well to a movie that looked closer to Kurosawa‘s Ran or Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin than it did to A Better Tomorrow or Bullet in the Head.

I shouldn’t have been worried at all.

Adapting the famous Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the director weaves together a huge movie, using his newfound knowledge of big budget film making, but still not losing a lot of the style and personality that we expect from Woo. What I’d forgotten was the director that was a veteran of Martial Arts films, such as Jackie Chan’s debut, Hand of Death and more importantly, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, a swirling cavalcade of swords and flying kicks. It’s this Woo that mixes his style with the Hollywood survivor and Cult Action Icon to create a movie that surprised me with its beauty, scope, and style.
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Now, there are some barriers that have to be crossed to really appreciate this film. First off, the movie doesn’t spend a whole lot of time introducing these characters, deciding instead to throw you into the main story of a warlord trying to conquer all of China, and the ensuing battles of our heroes fighting for their own freedoms. This is a little jarring at first, but you have to realize that this movie is based on one of the popular Chinese books of all time, and that book is even a dramatization of real events. These characters seem to already be ingrained into the culture, so introducing them to Chinese audiences would seem a little superfluous, especially considering how much story there is to tell. It would be like an American director making a film about the Civil War and having to painstakingly introduce Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. You already know who these people are, so a huge amount of exposition is not necessary.

Thankfully, once you’ve got past this period of adjustment, what you’re left with is an epic, Lord of the Rings style experience, complete with full blown great performances, and massive battle sequences, with a distinct twist. People expecting a traditional epic with battles similar to that of Braveheart and Gladiator may be a little disappointed, as instead of chaotic sequences of mass mayhem, Woo instead emphasizes personal struggles and individual standoffs. Sure, these battles tend to emphasize a more fantastical approach, with men breaking spears by the dozen and combatants doing many poses as much as fighting, but really, Woo’s films have never been about exact reality when its come to his action sequences.
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Whether its Tom Cruise doing 360 degree kicks or men taking on scores of 50+ bad guys, Woo hasn’t ever been about presenting realistic combat, but action that gets the heart pumping in the extreme, and that’s what he accomplishes with his new film. I especially love his sequences with actor Jun Hu as Zhao Yun, a warrior who must carry much of the film’s early action sequences on his shoulders. These are the grittiest scenes in the movies, with Yun having to wipe out wave after wave of soldiers in order to save the child of his Lord, Liu Bei (Yong You).

The sequences with Jun Hu exemplify Woo doing some of his best work in this new style. As before with Chow Yun Fat’s roles, you get a hero battling hordes of villains while doing his best to protect the innocent, such as the blinded singer in The Killer or the infant in one of Hard Boiled’s signature sequences. Here in the opening battle of Red Cliff, Jun Hu’s character goes to battle with a child strapped to his back, Lone Wolf and Cub-style, with his spear desperately trying to take down an evil horde of combatants. It is in this sequence that you get Woo’s signature mix of humanity and ferocity as fights are poetic in their violence, helped immensely by Cinematographers Lu Yue and Zhang Li.

When the mayhem stops though, the movie’s intensity doesn’t take a back seat. Masterfully centered around returning star Tony Leung’s portrayal of General Zhou Yu, we get a story of Liu Bei trying desperately to convince the general of joining his cause against the merciless Cao Cao (The Emperor and the Assassin’s Zhang Fengyi). We get fascinating sequences of mind games, once the preparation for attack commences, we’re absolutely exhilarated even before the first deadly blow is struck.
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Zhang Fengyi does a commendable job as the film’s antagonist, imbuing him with a very charming sort of evil, where the villain sees no way that he can be defeated, but also giving Cao Cao a bit of sadness and insanity for good measure. What could have been a bit of a cartoonish heavy for the movie ends up being a wonderful asset, as the actor plays the role to the hilt, but still with a degree of subtlety. Ken Watanabe was originally selected for the role of Cao Cao, but when fans objected to such an important role in the movie going to a Japanese actor, it was decided to go with Fengyi, and its hard to argue with the decision after watching this first half of the story.

For the good guys, its hard to really pinpoint the best role or performance in the film. With Chow Yun Fat leaving the production, it was a real coup for Woo to be able to get Tony Leung to come back to the production and replace his star. Leung does his usual amazing work here, even without having to give the role the same sort of darkness we’ve seen in many of his most famous pictures (Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled). He’s not so much tortured, as totally bad ass. A general completely in control of his troops, he seems like the type of man you’d want to follow into battle, even showing off some of his own fighting prowess in the film’s closing battle. Really though, Leung may get overshadowed in the picture, with actors like the aforementioned Jun Hu and popular Asian actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers making the absolute most of every single moment of screen time.
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Red Cliff is an incredible experience, and makes me no end of happy, both by seeing how well Woo has bounced back after a couple of financial and artistic failures, and also knowing that there is still another movie to go where we can see this story to its conclusion. The second half of Red Cliff promises more intrigue and action, and I can’t wait to see the Hong Kong legend doing his thing while seemingly taking his biggest artistic steps in more than a decade. Now if we could just get another balls to the wall Chow Yun Fat action thriller out of the man.

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