Red Cliff, Theatrical Version – Everything an action film needs

Based on historical events during the end of the Han Dynasty in China, the film chronicles Prime Minister Cao Cao’s ruthless campaign to seize control of the southern lands, and how the warlords of the southern lands, forced to unite in order to battle their aggressive and powerful enemy, fight back against seemingly impossible odds. What follows is one of the most epic war films I’ve seen in a long time.

Red Cliff is an epic film on a scale comparable to films such as The Lord of the Rings and Troy, but what makes the battles in this film interesting is not their massive scope, but the planning and strategy that goes into them. In one battle, the Southern army employs what they call a tortoise formation, a tactic which ultimately leads to trapping the enemy’s forces in a maze of soldiers. While there are other movies with bigger battle scenes, what makes this scene so interesting is that the armies aren’t just throwing troops at each other, but trying to use their men in the most effective and creative ways possible. War is more like chess in this film and less about sheer brute force.

Despite the film’s massive scale, John Woo still manages to flesh out the leads a bit in order that the audience can connect with the film on a more personal basis. We see how the characters think, learn their motives and even get a glimpse at some of their recreational activities. Because of this, we as an audience are able to enjoy many of the non-violent scenes almost as much as the battle sequences. We not only witness the battles, but understand why they are being fought.

Visually, this is a very good film. There are plenty of impressive sets and costumes to look at. The cinematography is also very good. The digital effects are decent, but not 100% believable; they do their job. The best action shots definitely come from the scenes where they have real people in armor fighting against each other.

I should probably warn you that while this is an historical war film, the action sequences are designed more for entertainment than for perfect historical accuracy; expect some crazy fights where the characters are capable of performing unbelievable stunts for the sake of sheer unmitigated awesomeness.

I have a mere handful of quibbles with regards to this film. In the version I saw, the film was in Mandarin with English subtitles, but the beginning narration was in English. I found this to be weird and a little bit confusing. Running almost two and a half hours in length, the condensed theatrical version Red Cliff is a very long movie. The international version is even longer, and at times you can feel its length, but what do you expect from an historical war epic? As I said, quibbles, minor criticisms.

This film has a lot of really great stuff going for it in the action category and my criticisms of this film are few and minor, making Red Cliff not just a film worth watching, but one of the best foreign language historical war epics I have ever seen.