Forgotten Friday Flick – “Red Cliff” (US & International Versions)

Keeping the love of all things past foreign film going we’re heading into movie battle with an ample outing that has no less then two different versions – welcome to Forgotten Friday Flick!  Today we’re hitching a ride with a modern master of action who after making a notable US run headed back home to helm one of the most glorious epic Asian war films to date.  It’s a tasty little ditty staged at the end of the Han dynasty filled with love, passion and some brutal battles that all but announce the signature style of the films’ famous Hong Kong helmer.  With two movies of different lengths for fans to choose from it’s time to dissect the various versions of John Woo’s…Red Cliff!

Set in AD 208 imperial China, the conniving Chancellor Cao Cao manages to manipulate the impressionable Emperor Xian into using his army and forces to eliminate southern warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei whom he sites as rebels.  But when the equally skilled and talented fighting forces of the south unite to oppose the unfair rule of Cao Cao and his legions of soldiers, an all out battle both on land and sea commences and only skill, intuition and ultimately strength of spirit will determine the victor.

For many the historical Red Cliff battle wedged between the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period is very well known.  But here in the US it’s more than likely a bit of a mystery – hence two versions of the film.  The International cut, which runs a whopping 288 minutes, covers not only the thrilling bits of action and character building, but also layers in an extra love story in the form of an opposite sides male/female relationship plus some very authentic feeling Chinese rituals that do add extra flavor.  The shorter US version, clocking in at a leaner 148 minutes, cuts more to the chase and while keeping the same basic structure moves at a much more aggressively fast pace.  (For me the shorter is a hair better!)

Though no matter which version fans find most appealing, as a film Red Cliff marks a grandiose return to form for the formerly Hollywood immersed Woo.  His early outings like The Killer, Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow gave action cinema a firm shot of adrenaline and a new way to look at a genre that had grown somewhat tired.  But what then followed in the form of American films ranged from bad (Hard Target is almost embarrassing!) to so-so (Face/Off was better – but still watered down Woo!) always felt as though no new ground was being laid.  Red Cliff, which Woo thankfully headed back home to make, does for swords and shields what Hard Boiled did for two-handed gunplay – it raises the bar.  From the balletic battles involving trapping the enemy with an intricate turtle formation (love those leg slicers!) to cunning ways of getting weapons from an overly eager enemy (extra arrows anyone?!) Woo brings his signature style back in full force to leave all those who witness Red Cliff with appropriate action awe.

Woo also enlists a wide-ranging array of actors to play his colorful characters, all of whom do so with real relish.  Tony Leung as the self-assured Zhou Yu, Takeshi Kaneshiro as the world-wise Zhunge Liang, Zhang Fengyi as the over-confident Cao Cao and especially Zhao Wei as the feisty sister Sun Shangxiang are just a few notables amidst a large and effective cast that work hard to bring Woo’s world to life.  And not unlike his picturesque images, his cast is not only an effective tool to hammer home the drama, but also as another visual color on Woo’s bright and epic cinematic canvas.  (The choreographed formation scenes are certainly stunning to watch!)

There were major stories back in the day about how Woo regular Chow Yun-fat was supposed to reunite with his old filmmaker friend to play a lead part in Red Cliff, but then bailed at the last minute.  If the tale has any truth Chow (where the heck has that guy been?!) should be kicking himself, not just for the obvious, but for missing out on one seriously savory outing that is undisputedly one of Woo’s best.  Doing what he does best, Woo one again makes a flick just like I like my steak – red and bloody beautiful.




I'm a passionate and opinionated film critic/movie journalist with over 20 years of experience in writing about film - now exclusively for WhySoBlu.com. Previous sites include nine years at Starpulse.com where I created Forgotten Friday Flick back in 2011, before that as Senior Entertainment Editor for The213.net and 213 Magazine, as well as a staff writer for JoBlo.com. My other love is doing cool events for the regular guy with my company Flicks For Fans alongside my friend, partner and Joblo.com writer James "Jimmy O" Oster. Check us out at www.Facebook.com/FlicksForFans.

1 Response to “Forgotten Friday Flick – “Red Cliff” (US & International Versions)”

  1. Aaron Neuwirth

    Love Red Cliff! Either version. Not sure how this didn’t put John Woo on a path to make even more great films like this immediately after.