John Woo literally redefined action cinema for me. In the early 1990’s, I’d stumbled into a viewing of The Killer at a friend’s house and, despite the fact that the quality of the lazily dubbed, third generation VHS copy of the film I was watching was horrid, what was on the screen, behind the scan lines and artifacts, was a thing of absolute beauty. Eventually, I got my hands on a decent quality VHS copy of the film, and, some time later, Woo’s equally-impressive follow-up, Hard Boiled. It was around that time that Woo made his Hollywood debut (the underrated Jean Claude Van Damme flick, Hard Target), but, while he was a legend in his native Hong Kong, it would be four years before his breakout hit, Face/Off, would make him a household name in America. Sadly, Woo’s good fortune in Hollywood was short-lived as, with the exception of the lackluster Mission:Impossible 2, Woo’s subsequent films failed to match Face/Off’s success at the box-office. In 2007, Woo returned to his homeland to begin work on his first Chinese film since 1992 - a four hour-plus wushu-inspired historical epic based on the legendary battle of Red Cliff.
It’s the summer of the year 208. Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), still riding the high of a glorious victory, brings word of possible dissension in the south, and convinces the inexperienced Emperor Xian to give him and his 800,000 man army the blessing to move forward and wipe out the forces of warlords, Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (You Yong). Liu Bei sends a small force to hold off Cao Cao’s army in hopes of buying time for the thousands of civilians fleeing the kingdom. Later, Liu Bei and his surviving generals meet in a remote village to discuss their options. Liu Bei’s advisor, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), suggests an alliance with Sun Quan, as neither warlord’s army stands a chance against Cao Cao’s forces on their own, and, with a little persuading on the part of the sly Zhuge Liang, Sun Quan agrees. Now, with the help of Sun Quan’s brilliant strategist, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), the forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan will unite in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds as Cao Cao’s invasion force nears Red Cliff.
Featuring a cast of thousands, and shot on a scope to rival Hollywood’s most ambitious productions, the international version of John Woo’s Red Cliff is a thoroughly engrossing and visually stunning epic of the highest order. Sadly, this heavily truncated U.S. theatrical version of the film, while still fantastically entertaining, only paints half of the picture, cutting back on the film’s rich characterization, and, as a result, exorcising much of the film’s heart and soul. More than two hours have been cut from this release, and, at times, it’s very apparent as some sequences seem entirely out of place here without the “quieter” moments that preceded them. Action fans will revel in the sheer scope of Woo’s massive, ultra-bloody battle scenes, but much of what makes those scenes so powerful has been cut in an attempt to make the film and its rather large cast of characters more palatable to western audiences. It’s understandable that a studio would balk at the prospect of releasing a Chinese language film based on an historical event that few outside of China have ever heard of, let alone one that’s 288 minutes long, so Magnolia deserves big kudos for offering both versions of the film on Blu-ray. That being the case, however, I’m left with choice but to recommend that those interested in seeing this film seek out the longer cut. That’s not to say that the U.S. version isn’t a good movie; it’s good enough that it made me go out and purchase the international version, and watch it all over again the way that that the director intended. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely do the same thing, and I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t recommend you pick up the international version, especially seeing as how it can be had for the same price as the U.S. theatrical release reviewed here.
Magnolia releases Red Cliff as part of their Magnet imprint's Six Shooter Film series. Whichever version you choose, Red Cliff is a beautiful film, flush with period detail, striking scenery, and jaw-dropping visual effects. Magnolia’s 2.35:1 1080p transfer is exceptionally sharp and vibrant, with a stunning level of fine detail, most evident in the character’s weathered and weary visages, as well as fabrics and textures. The gorgeous imagery is complimented by a robust DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack (available in both English dub and original Mandarin) that sports ultra-crisp dialogue (although I couldn’t understand a lick of it…sorry, my Mandarin begins and ends with menu items), gut-rumbling bass, and an arsenal of discrete effects that envelop the viewer, drawing them further into Woo’s majestically crafted world.
While the two-disc international version boasts a few extra supplements, the U.S. theatrical release ain’t no slouch, offering a feature-length (145 minute!) making of documentary entitled The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road (SD) that covers virtually every aspect of the production, and is full of juicy behind-the-scenes tidbits and conflicts. Other extras include A Conversation with John Woo (HD), a thirty-minute interview segment in which Woo discusses the pre-production process of Red Cliff; HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff (HD), a short EPK-style promo featurette, storyboards, and trailers for other Magnolia releases.