R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: A Tale of Two Epics

This past weekend, I took in two different epic films. One, I saw in a packed theater with a crowd hungrily anticipating a gigantic experience, hoping to be entertained like never before. The other film, I saw in the comfort of my living room, a movie only available to me at this time on an imported Blu-ray. One of these films ended up being an epic failure in terms of everything except spectacle. Any traces of humanity, fluid storytelling, subtlety, subtext or basically any hallmark of great film making other than giant action sequences and gorgeous cinematography, was completely lacking during the experience. The other film was one of the best films of the year, with a film maker at the helm noted for always taking his subject matter as seriously as possible, even when adding incredibly visceral action and over the top heroics.

Unfortunately, the first film that I saw was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Now, don’t get me wrong; I can understand why people are enjoying this movie. The new Transformers film is loud, beautiful to look out and as broad as possible. Many will probably not mind the leg humping robots, mindless sequences of juvenile comedy, the overt racism of some of its characters, and the ridiculous portrayals of life in general. Unlike Bad Boys II, this second Transformers movie isn’t really mean spirited, and this movie doesn’t crap all over men who fought and died for our country, much like Bay’s Pearl Harbor was able to do (still my least favorite of all his work).

If all you’re there to see is giant robots fighting and fighting, the biggest explosion in movie history and Megan Fox running in slow motion, then you’ll probably be entertained throughout. If you’re wanting a coherent story, more screen time with Autobots that you actually cared about in the first movie, and to actually be moved or intellectually stimulated, like say, The Dark Knight, Star Trek, or even Iron Man was able to do, then you may want to stay away. Transformers 2 is all excess with a small amount of payoff, and in the end, It’s an exhausting experience, mostly because you’ll be constantly picking your jaw up off the floor from just how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Fortunately, my weekend was not all lost because one of my favorite directors showed me exactly what a director like Michael Bay is missing. I have spoken many, many times in this column about my love for John Woo as a director. I think his work in Hong Kong Cinema is as strong as any director who has ever come out of that country. His movies, such as Hard Boiled and The Killer, have influenced countless action directors, his legacy traced to blockbusters and cult faves alike, such as The Matrix, Desperado, Shoot em’Up, and Wanted.

Unfortunately, his time in Hollywood was not as successful as it should have been. Though Woo was much more successful here in the States than his Hong Kong contemporaries Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, with hits like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II under his belt, Woo suffered big failures like Windtalkers and Paycheck right when he was on the cusp of becoming Hollywood elite. Fortunately, his clout back in his homeland seemed to remain strong, and with the production of his new movie, Red Cliff, we have gotten to see Woo back in his top form.

Though the film was plagued with production problems, from star Chow Yun-Fat leaving the film to an accident killing a stuntman, the end result is one of awesome proportions. In January, I reviewed the first half of Woo’s two part, five-hour epic. Now, after getting to see his finale this past weekend, I can say emphatically that John Woo is back in top form, and displaying the type of incredibly stylized action film making that made him a worldwide phenomenon in the early 90’s.

Red Cliff II Starring Tony Leung, Fengyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Jun Hu. Directed by John Woo

There was a time when I was relatively new to Hong Kong and Martial Arts cinema. To say that I was hungry for as much of it as I could get would be a huge understatement, as I was downright ravenous when it came to collecting these titles. I couldn’t get enough of Woo’s work, as well as stars like Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Tony Leung. Their movies showed me a whole new type of action movie, where style was king and even when logic took a back seat, humanity and passion was never in short supply. These movies had soul and energy, and they completely took control of my imagination in the same way that Schwarzenegger and Stallone had done when I was in High School, and how adventures likeSuperman and Star Wars had made me love film in the first place as a child.

The zenith of my love for Asian cinema probably came around the time of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which to this day remains one of my favorite films of all time. Never have I seen another movie that is essentially a pure Martial Arts film at its core, but still manages to move me deeply with its electric performances and genuine emotion on top of some of the best Kung fu ever put on screen. At the center of my affection for the movie is the relationship between Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien, the star-crossed lovers and life long friends who have stayed at each other’s side through hard fought war as well as languishing through peacetime without knowing what it would be like to be able to love one another because of duty.

I mention Crouching Tiger because throughout the film Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien often talk of battles that they’ve fought through, and in my mind these battle are the most awesome ever fought. While Chinese cinema has often pictured Martial Arts battles, more often than not, they’re rather small scale or skirmishes (Duel to the Death, Seven Swords). Much more frequently, Chinese film makers have simply gone the traditional movie route with well staged, but historically accurate battles (The Emperor and the Assassin), which also is not really able to satiate the need in my mind to watch these almost magically gifted warriors battling it out. What I’ve always looked for since that time was like a mixture of some of the more outlandish moments of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, the Jedi arena battle of Attack of the Clones, and a twinge of Zach Snyder’s work on 300. With the first and now second parts of John Woo’s Red Cliff, that need has now been taken care of.

While the battles of the first film were even more stylized than those of this second film, Woo still shows himself to be a master of orchestrating incredible and innovative action and with this second film, even gives his action a sense of scale only hinted at in his first chapter. Still though, you can tell that he is a director who has grown up in the art form of cinema, and his film has many echoes of the film makers that specialized in the spectacle film of Hollywood’s golden era. Building up anticipation for the first two thirds of Part II, Woo unleashes a gargantuan battle sequence for the final third of the movie, and I mean the ENTIRE final third of the movie.

Even compared toTroy, a film that is trying to be like a classic Hollywood epic, Woo manages to eclipse the Hollywood blockbuster in terms of action by not stagnating its action, but to keep the film moving. Troy‘s battles are more crowded than visceral, but both parts of Red Cliff manage to keep the heart pumping with their director’s incredible pace, yet the film never gets too chaotic or over edited to the point where you don’t know what’s going on. Watching the sea battle portion of this second chapter elicits epics of old, like Cleopatra or The Vikings, but never becoming stagnant with its portrayal of violence.

The final assault on the fortress of Cao Cao is a siege worthy of either Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days of Peking or Peter Jackson‘s The Two Towers as the director keeps building emotional momentum while his warriors fight on to the death, each moment that rolls on hiking up the odds that one of them or an innocent will fall to the forces of evil. Thankfully though, Woo never seems to push too hard, and never makes the mistake of putting the odds too heavily in the villain’s corner, so that no matter what the heroes do, they’ll never be able to really even the odds. On a budget a third of what it cost to make Michael Bay’s summer smash, Woo eclipses Revenge of the Fallen with old school bad-assery, amazingly and coherently staged mayhem and emotionally charged artistry with style to burn.

Then again, the reasons why I love this movie aren’t just relegated to the movie’s final action packed hour. The first two thirds of this movie are filled with wonderful performances that manage to strike just the right tone between human warrior and super powered god-like figure. The worry is that sometimes characters in a colossal movie like this one will become too aloof, with it hard to make a connection with these creatures of legend.

For instance, it would be difficult to find many actors more soulful than Tony Leung. Other than Chow Yun-Fat, no actor has ever been a stronger “go-to guy” for Woo than Leung has appearing as tortured souls in both Hard Boiled and Woo’s Viet Nam War film Bullet in the Head. His General Zhou Yu takes center stage even more in this second film than he did in the first, further developing his relationships with his wife, the beautiful Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi Ling), and his brilliant military strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro Takeshi). Its these relationships that manage to form the core of emotion in this film, as the film goes along, the stakes for these individuals get higher and higher, until we almost reach a breaking point near film’s end.

Thankfully, Woo makes the characters earn these interactions and emotional sequences. Take for instance any scene with Xiao Qiao behind enemy lines in this second film and contrast it to anything that is supposed to be emotional in Revenge of the Fallen and the comparison is laughable. Sure, the action surrounding them is still enormous, yet Woo never loses sight of how to keep you emotionally involved. With his kingdom and his wife life on the line, Leung’s tortured General is a magnificent example of the right type of epic hero.

Take this and add it to the constant back and fourth of mind games played with the film’s villain, the despotic Cao Cao (played with just the right amount of malevolence by Zhang Feng Yi), then throw in the amazing first film and the final mind blowing battle, and you’ve got John Woo‘s incredible return to form in Red Cliff. While the movie’s $80 Million budget doesn’t seem to high as Hollywood blockbusters get more and more expensive, the most expensive films in Chinese history put every single cent up on screen for all to see. With Woo’s classic themes of brotherhood, love and betrayal on display, those that love the Hong Kong masters films should have no trouble coming to love this one along side the best films in the director’s pantheon. There’s no giant robots in it, but this one eclipses Bay’s film with a heavy dose of humanity and beauty to go along with style and heaping helpings of action.

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