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Red Cliff

tn_redcliffwoozoneSome of you young kids might not know about The Curse of Van Damme. It was an early ’90s phenomenon named after (but not necessarily caused by) our favorite Belgian kickboxer/actor because of his track record for personally delivering talented Hong Kong directors to Hollywood. They’d come over, inject our action movies with a very small watered-down dose of what they had been doing back at home, then their bodies and minds would be completely drained by the studio beasts, leaving them hollow husks whose names on movies were no longer desirable. I mean you got John Woo – who used to wear his heart on the back of his director’s chair, who used special cameras powered by liquified male bonding and typed his scripts in inks made from tears of passion – directing a movie so obviously for a paycheck that, in my opinion, it was even titled PAYCHECK.

But the curse can be broken. Six years and no theatrical releases later John Woo returned home, filming a Chinese movie for the first time in 17 years, and what he came up with was a motherfucking masterpiece. The damn thing is so powerful somebody tried to chop it in half and it just grew into two complete movies. Whoever did it I bet they just ran away because they knew if they chopped those in half you’d have four RED CLIFFS and they would conquer the earth, guaranteed.

mp_redcliffThese came out in ’08 and ’09, so there’s been plenty of time to watch them. But some of you guys probly haven’t seen ’em, and can relate to me on this: I was intimidated. I mean I heard alot of good things, but you know, it’s a Chinese historical epic, and it’s 2 hours and 20 minutes just to get to the halfway mark. It’s one of those things you want to do, you plan to do, but you rarely feel like doing it. Like working at a soup kitchen. But then I watched those BETTER TOMORROW movies again and I promised a return to the Woo Zone and I decided it was time to bite the bullet. Or I guess in this case the arrow, there aren’t guns in this one. Maybe that’s all Woo had to do to reinvigorate himself, switch up the projectiles.

I gotta tell you, it was tough going at first. This is a movie based on very famous Chinese history and legends, stories and characters that Chinese audiences are familiar with, that you and I never fuckin heard of. And there are a couple different factions and a whole bunch of different characters and although they do a good job of distinguishing them from each other visually I wasn’t able to remember which name was which face, so then when they’re talking about each other I don’t know who they mean and I get kind of lost.

So about an hour into the movie I was thinking okay, this looks beautiful and has some really cool scenes and stuff but I don’t think I’m gonna be able to get through this whole thing yet. I’ll just struggle through part 1, return it and rent it again for part 2 some other time.

But then the battles started, the crazy fuckin battles. I don’t know how much this is supposed to be based on real shit, but it seems even more exaggerated than 300, and with a bigger scope. The first big battle is like an endless parade of inventive action. Remember the phalanx in 300, where they hold their shields together to form kind of a metal wall? In RED CLIFF they do it in tortoise formation, a giant circle of interlocked shields, and at one point the camera actually pulls back as the phalanx morphs into a giant tortoise. They use their shields to block opposing soldiers inside one big metal corridor, then joust them. They trap them inside a big circle, toss in a bunch of nooses and drag them out of the circle so they can spear them. You know – the ol’ noose ‘n stab. When the bad guys form a little tortoise themselves the good guys loop around them with a rope with metal things strung onto it and just crush the whole fuckin turtle shell. Squoosh. Super Mario formation.

By the time part 1 ended I was on much more comfortable footing, I felt like I mostly understood who was who and what was going on and I abandoned plan A (return DVD to store without watching part 2) for plan B (immediately put in disc 2 and find out what happens because this shit is awesome). And part 2 begins with a little “previously on RED CLIFF” type recap that makes it all seem so simple, I wondered what I was so confused about.

But you won’t even have the same trouble because I want you to see this movie so bad that at the end of this review I prepared the visual guide I wish I had had to help me understand who was who during that first hour. You know how at an opera they give you a thing that tells what the story is, and you’re familiar with that before you watch the opera? Yeah, me neither, but I think I read that somewhere. Anyway, if you’re intimidated just use my cheat-sheet below and you’ll be fine.

* * *

I’m pretty sure RED CLIFF is the HUGEST fucking movie John Woo will ever make, but he’s still John Woo, so he spends alot of time focusing on the small and intimate things too. That’s the visual theme I noticed most: zooming in on small things while GIGANTIC things are happening in the background. The opening scene is all about the Emperor focusing his attention on a bird in his throne room, while he’s clearly ignoring the drums of war. The drums are metaphorical, the bird is literal, and he sits and whistles and smiles at this little bird that flew into his huge throne room while his entourage seems embarrassed and uncomfortable. The Emperor is very feminine and gussied up like Queen Amidala from the Star Warses, and his gruff war hero chancellor Cao Cao stomps in ahead of his troops and yells at him and guilts him into letting him go start some war. You can tell the Emperor doesn’t want the responsibility of knowing the right way to handle this guy. He’d rather be playing with the bird.

That type of imagery keeps coming back, for example when Zhou Yu holds up his feather-fan to compare to his troops standing in “goose formation.” The story focuses on this group of leaders and strategists in the middle of giant armies, it’s about the tiny within the huge. And the shot at the end of part 1 demonstrates this the most: it’s an incredible 2 1/2 minute continuous (heavily digital but very real looking) shot that follows a messenger pigeon flying from Red Cliff, across the river, over entire armadas, down to the river bank over the armies on horseback, through a stadium where a soccer-like game called cuju is being played, and then Cao Cao says that “for the Battle of Red Cliff I am ready…” It’s an awe-inspiring shot (apparently one of the most expensive CGI shots to date) that’s a metaphor for the whole movie, a map of the locations for part 2 and a heart-pounding Oh Shit It’s On cliffhanger… all at the same time.

(if anybody ever ends a part 1 out of 2 in a similar fashion again it will be called a redcliffhanger)

Another way that John Woo gets intimate is with the badass juxtaposition. And there are alot of badass characters in this movie so there might be a world record amount of badass juxtaposition. We got the guy whose wing-fan “keeps him calm.” We got warriors who bond by jamming together (I wrote down that the instrument is called a “quim,” but the internet doesn’t seem to back me up on that). We got a guy who weaves sandals (both a calming hobby and a symbol of weak grass working together to become strong). We got a guy who takes care of the messenger pigeons and carefully bathes them.

There’s a long section of the movie where my man Zhuge Liang first helps out a peasant whose water buffalo was stolen by soldiers, then somebody runs in yelling “It’s a breech birth!” and next thing you know he’s helping deliver a baby horse! He names it Meng Meng and has to promise it won’t be used as a war horse. There should be an animated spin-off about the Young Meng Meng Adventures.

There is talk about tea ceremonies. In Part 2 they say that Cao Cao wouldn’t appreciate the art of tea, and sure enough he gets a chance to show he’s not that interested. On the other hand he is into poetry. It’s partly in an aggressive way (“I am still waiting to carve my poetry onto that cliff!”) but also he uses it ceremonially, like he recites poetry while they burn the bodies of plague victims.

But in order for there to be badass juxtaposition there has to be a proportionate amount of badass. Otherwise you just got a lime wedge or a maraschino cherry in a big empty glass. Some of these epic battle movies bore the shit out of me because they’re just a crowd of dirty dudes yelling and running at each other with swords, they don’t got enough moves to keep my interest. Not RED CLIFF. This is part 1, only the preliminary battles, but it still tears through a long list of clever war maneuvers and superhuman asskicking techniques. There’s stabbing a guy with an arrow by hand, there’s yanking a guy off a horse by the flag, there’s the scene where they flip their shields around to reveal reflectors that shine sun into the eyes of the horses and make them all crumble to the ground, there’s FONG SAI YUK type overhead crowd walking, all kinds of shit. In a coincidental tribute to the most iconic image in HARD BOILED, there’s a scene where a guy carries a baby through a massive sword battle. In part 2 there’s another John Woo staple: a Mexican standoff. But with swords. A Han Dynasty standoff, I guess.

Let me give you one small example of the level of awesomeness in this movie, courtesy of Zhang Fei. This guy doesn’t even need a weapon, he can run through a platoon of armed men, beat the shit out of them, ruin their weapons, and ram a horse:

One of the top uses of horse-ramming in modern cinema. And that’s not even the end of the scene. After that he steals the horse and takes his side’s flag back.

Once I got into the Woo Zone RED CLIFF was the most exciting movie I’d seen in a long god damn time. To me it was a similar feeling to watching the LORD OF THE RINGSes. It’s every bit as cool without even the aid of monsters or wizardy magic of any kind. Of course it reminds me of other movies with armies and epic battles and martial arts and swarms of arrows, like HERO. But it also kept reminding me of STAR WARS. Well, mostly the prequel ones, but bear with me here. The heroes of this movie are just like the Jedis, larger-than-life warriors running around leading these huge battles, knowing all the crazy moves, putting themselves on the line, also wearing robes and using swords. And I know it’s based on actual history but I was still impressed by the wide selection of vehicles, weapons, armor style, etc. There’s alot of nice things to look at.

Part 2 doesn’t immediately launch into battle like I kind of expected, but by this time I was really into the characters so I was kind of glad it didn’t. In this part Sun Quan’s sister Sun Shangxiang, having convinced all the dudes that it is okay for a woman to go out and do shit, goes undercover as a soldier on the other side of the river. In her armor she passes for a guy, MULAN style, and turns out to be real good at cuju. She makes friends with a moronic prince, they even have a nickname for themselves together Pit and Piggy. But she’s not really fat enough to be called Piggy, she just looks fat because she’s wrapped in the detailed maps she’s drawing of all their side’s military formations. She’s taking advantage of his stupidity and willingness to help her, but she obviously likes him and feels that old bonding and guilt familiar from most John Woo movies and all undercover agent movies.

There’s other unexpected friendship and betrayal going on. There’s a guy from Cao Cao’s side allowed to visit the Red Cliffers because he was childhood friends with one of them, he tries to convince them to surrender and instead they send him home with false information. But they feel bad about it, even though he tried to screw them. “I have lost an old friend.”

Part 2 is alot of fun because it’s so full of clever strategy and tricks. Stuff like predicting the other side’s plan based on what they think the weather will be, and defeating that stategy based on superior knowledge of weather prediction. Inventing firebombs made of eggshells, fish oil and gun powder. My favorite part, maybe old hat for Chinese people but I never heard of this one, is the part about Zhuge Liang’s promise to get 100,000 arrows. He has a really clever way of getting the arrows, and when a miscount makes it seem like he’s a mere 400 short of the 100,000 he’s fully prepared to honor his bargain, i.e. let them chop off his head. They get pretty fuckin close. Would’ve been a mistake. Glad they didn’t fuck that one up.

Cao Cao has some good moves too, like when his men start getting Typhoid fever so he floats their corpses over to the other side. Pretty fuckin harsh. Hey, could you guys take care of these bodies? He’s shown not to be 100% evil though, too. He feeds a sick man, and talks to him about his son. He has a heart. In fact, that might be his biggest weakness. When his guys figure out that the war has something to do with him having an old crush on a girl they seem pretty pissed.

There it is again, the small and intimate inside the huge and epic. And it’s kind of the point. All this war, all this death, all this heroism and sacrifice, all this cunning and bravery, all because some stupid asshole saw a pretty girl one time and missed his window and never forgot about it. If it happened to most people it would just be an embarrassing thing they might get over with help from their therapist. But this guy is in a position to start wars over it. In his mind I’m sure he convinces himself that it’s not really about that, it’s these two warlords, they gotta be stopped! But if there was no girl involved, let’s be honest, he would’ve thought of something else to do with his time I bet. And we’ve loved watching these warriors and all the cool things they do, but we realize they’re not really fighting for a cause. They’re just fighting against some bullshit.

They shouldn’t even be put in that position. They should be left alone to play music and cuju and make sandals and shit. Cao Cao could come over and say his poetry at their jam session, and learn more about tea if he wants to. And then the pigeon guy could talk to the Emperor about birds, and Zhuge Liang could become a veterinarian. These guys all ought to be friends.

It started with a bird and it ends with a horse, returning to Meng Meng. He’s able to just be a horse, not a war horse. And hopefully all the humans were able to go on living without having to be war humans.

Even if this movie weren’t as great as it is it would be satisfying just to see John Woo get a chance to spend this kind of money to put this type of hugeness on screen. I mean, it’s not even his biggest budget – according to IMDb’s estimates it cost $80 million, about $45 million less than MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II. But if you were just gonna go by what appears on screen, RED CLIFF looks like about 75 times the budget of that one. As hard of a time as he has working in Hollywood there’s no way this one was easy, with all these gigantic scenes, whether working with hundreds of extras or faking it in computers, it all must’ve been a nightmare. Not even including all that stuff about how they were having to rewrite the script and Chow Yun Fat backed out at the last minute and all that. This is a once in a lifetime movie by a genius director somehow climbing back to the top of his game years after everybody gave up on him ever making a halfway decent movie again.

It just goes to show you shouldn’t completely give up on anybody. In the movie there’s a point where Lui Bei feels he has to back out for the good of his people, and everybody is bummed but they understand and say their goodbyes. But then he shows up again when he’s most needed, with a “you didn’t really think I would abandon you?” type of attitude. And that’s just what John Woo has done to us. Ladies and gentlemen, John Woo was back. I’m not gonna say he is back because if I were him I would go take a nap for about 20 years.

Clip and save my unofficial RED CLIFF VISUAL GUIDE!

Disclaimer: Contains spoilers. Might be hard to follow along with while watching movie.  Outlawvern.com not responsible for damage to computer monitors caused by overly literal interpretations of instructions

redcliff-guide

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 4th, 2010 at 4:16 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

66 Responses to “Red Cliff”

  1. Maybe it isn’t your thing, but I thought you should have mentioned the epic score, which was so awesome I still hum it in my head till this day whenever someone mentions John Woo or Red Cliff. And John Woo cares a lot about the music in his movies. Well, at least during his Hong Kong filming days.

  2. And if Vern’s visual guide still confuses you, you can get the “Americanized” version of Red Cliff from Netflix. It’s a breezy 148 minutes but the upside is you can stream it right now.

    Since I’m in the “I don’t mind guys (and/or gals) beating the shit out of each other but it really does mean something more if I have some fracking idea who they are and why they’re doing it” camp I’ll wait a couple days for the full versions to come in the mail. Especially since they’re available on Blu-Ray.

    Although if you’re in Canada and can only do streaming maybe it’s the “Canadaized” version you can stream. Perhaps I’m over thinking this.

  3. Ugh, I just checked and we only got the 140 minutes version either :P

  4. I’m so glad you mentioned Zhang Fei and the horse scene, Vern. Anytime “Red Cliff” is discussed, that’s one of the first things I think of. That and how good it was to see John Woo deliver such a great movie again. If it wasn’t so late, I’d be tempted to start watching them again now, but I need to go to bed.

  5. Man , I just loved that shot with the pigeon over armadas . John Woo was constantly spoofed in a number of movies for his doves and birds , and then here we are with a beautiful scene where the bird is the only protagonist . That’s dedication and consistency. Yeah ? You’re joking about my birds ? Can you do something this awesome with just one single pigeon ?

    I was able to read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms a couple of years ago , and it was a whole month of reading because that book is fucking huge . The battle of Chi Bi it’s only one of the many awesome things about that book , and the movie left out a couple of badass characters in the book , like Lu Bu and Huang Zhong , because they appear in different time periods . Huang Zhong is the old , wise general , and Lu Bu , well , let’s just say that he’s the chinese Darth Vader , the guy is so badass he just needs a movie by himself alone . But I know some people , poor bastards ,that flat out refused to see the movie because it left out a very important character from the book , Pang Tong , the strategist who had the idea of linking the ships with chains . He was one of the finest strategists of the time and was called Young Phoenix , while Zhuge Liang was Crouching Dragon. Yeah , it’s an historical error , but when I saw the Gate formation or the repeating crossbow I was already pissing in my pants , so well done , John Woo !

    For a fan of the book this is heaven . Imagine that I even knew the names of the weapons , from Guan Yu’s “Green Dragon Blade” to Cao Cao’s swords , “Trust in God” and “Blue Destiny” ( Saberman , correct me if I’m wrong!) ! Every time these guys were on the screen , I was howling !

  6. After seeing the two part version, I can’t imagine what kind of film the shorter, one movie Red Cliff would be. The films work brilliantly precisely because of the interplay of big and small, the huge battles and small character moments. You can’t just include all the action set pieces and chop out character parts because they’re “slow”.

    I imagine the difference is like between the theatrical and director’s cuts of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Only magnified by a tenfold because it’s not just half an hour or so of scenes, but another entire movie.

    An absolutely magnificent achievement from Woo (especially with that budget). RED CLIFF 1 & 2 will definitely be top on my to-buy list when I get around to upgrade to BluRay.

  7. Vern, that review was the RED CLIFF of RED CLIFF film reviews. {High 5}

  8. Vern, it would appear that you were born to write this review. Epic, in every possible sense. :-)

  9. Only seen the western edit too, but it was still awesome and apparently didn’t remove anything TOO important from the film. I think you should include Gan Xing on that visual guide too Vern. He was the ex pirate guy who was a high ranking officer in Zhou Yu’s army and is always yelling at everyone and is only happy with the firebombs once they’re powerfull enough to knock him off his feet.
    I’d like to recommend MONGOL to you too, Vern. It’s not as epic in it’s battles, but it’s a good story about Genghis Khan’s rise to power and does well with the relationships between characters and how the Mongol way of doing things guides their actions (his dad for instance dies drinking milk from an enemy he suspects is poisoned, but not drinking it would be un-Khanlike).

  10. Glad to know that Woo is back in the game. You make a valid argument and I will give this film a try when I normally wouldn’t. Grim is the one who is into these types of movies.

  11. Stu, guys, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: that damn “Bigger, bigger!” scene with the improvised explosive firebombs is one of the best bits of BADASS CINEMA ever filmed.

  12. Thank God , I was able to find this link ! If someone wants to read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms online , the book is widely available in a number of sources , and I think legally free . Cao Cao , in the book , is a way more complex character and Zhuge Liang has a lot more clever tricks up his sleeve than in one single movie. It’s a fantastic read and a mind-opener.

    But here :

    http://kongming.net/novel/writings/wotg/

    There’s a book written by Zhuge Liang himself , the Way of the General , kind of like his version of the Art of War , translated in English . I was able to find it a couple of years ago , when I was in a Three Kingdoms mood.

  13. I’ve only seen the theatrical American release and I felt that was pretty close to a masterpiece so this full version has to be glorious.

  14. Reguarding the Van Damme curse, it was also broken by Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, the latter more successfully when he made the very tremendously awesome Heat-esque cop thriller “Full Alert”. Of course he got right back on that Belgium horse and made a couple of more (pretty good) Van Damme flicks then after.

    Tsui Hark’s career resurgence took longer, a lot longer. But the best film he was involved in post Van Damme would probably be “Triangle”, and movie he co-directed with, that’s right, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To (hellava director that guy) , which was sort of an anthology film but each segment continued the story from the previous director. Not unlike that game that was played in school where somebody would begin a story and somebody else would pick it up and add their own spin. It’s a little weird, but well worth checking out.

    So for all filmmakers who ever had a post Van Damme crash, have hope, people have recovered, and recovered well.

  15. Does the 2 part version have the intrusive “american trailer voice over guy” giving a rundown of the situation at the start like in the westernised edit?

  16. Nope, the international version doesn’t have that. However, what I do like about the american version is it gives you a title card for each of the main characters the first time they appear, saying who they are and what faction they belong to.

    I too think this is an incredible movie, my favorite of John Woo’s in fact.

    The interesting thing is that I think the american version is just as good as the international.
    I feel like the 4 hour cut has a lot of stuff that most people wouldn’t care about and is kinda cheesy and un-necessary. I also feel like the battle scenes in the extended cut lose their momentum (particularly the big cavalry battle from part one), because they become super repetitive, with like a 4 minute scene for each character to kick ass. There are some things that don’t make the american cut that I really wish they could’ve fit into it, but for people un-familiar with the story, I think they would enjoy the US version more.

    They’re both incredible though, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you have to check it out.

  17. Earlier today, I got in touch with an old Ranger buddy of mine to say what’s up and to bring attention to this phenomenal review of one of our favorite films. [We visited Shanghai together a few years ago (Has it been that long already? Shit, I’m getting old fast.), and recently we even looked into trying to return to China together to visit the locations of some of our favorite Hong Kong/Chinese film shoots. He has a friend with a connection to Mr. Jonathan Rosenbaum, the famous Hong Kong cinema expert, so this somehow seems feasible but I don’t know.]

    Apparently, he, too, is currently deployed, but to a much more computer/internet-friendly location at the moment, so, my online video capability being turtle-slow, I asked if he could post a link to the scene I’ve identified as one of my all-time favorites. He says he couldn’t find it. He also says he left the laptop with the good DVD/video-capture software back at Bragg. So what he did was he played RED CLIFF from his hard drive, connected the laptop with an HDMI cable to his command post’s 50″ TV (the monitor on which they usually watch a Shadow or Predator or Raven feed, I’m told), recorded the magic with his handheld digital camera, transferred the magic to his laptop, and uploaded the scene to Youtube. What a pal.
    The audio/visual quality ain’t great, but:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNek27kjqaY

    What a fucking scene.

  18. CallmeKermit: Lu Bu is in serious need of Western recognition for excellence in badassery. He did have a problem with loyalty, but on the other hand his spear was called Sky Piercer.

    Hours of playing the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms games really paid off when I watched this. Afterwords I had to fire up 10 and use Liu Bei to kick Cao Cao’s ass, just because.

    I’m all for Mr. Woo getting his mojo back by doing a couple more costume pieces. It’s like he’s getting back to his roots. Has anyone seen Reign of Assassins and is it any good?

  19. Alright, let’s try this one:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hhoWuNuaic

    Fuckin’ international intellectual property lawyers. . .

  20. Then fuck you, YT.

  21. My only problem with RED CLIFF is that it makes perfectly acceptable similar films like Jet Li’s WARLORDS seem really lacking in comparison.

    Takeshi Kaneshiro, who plays Zhuge Liang, is also the coolest thing in Wong Kar-Wai’s FALLEN ANGELS. It’s an insane performance; he’s riveting without uttering a word of dialogue.

  22. I applaud your enthusiasm and candor in your review. After being mind numbed by Woo’s Hollywhore productions, I too began to think he drank the kool-aide. Then I saw Red Cliff!!! A fucking masterclass in epic film making. Exquisite execution in every element…storytelling, cinematography, choreography, casting. It is a visual feast that had me engaged from start to finish. :))))

    If you are into the genre on a mystic level I may have a few suggestions for you from my collection. Hit me up on my email.
    Thanks for putting a smile on my face tonight.
    I love the way you express yourself.

    Peace, Love and Wushu to you my brother from another mother!

    Namaste,

    Niah

  23. Red Cliff is the best movie i´ve seen this year.

  24. Something about the numbers in the BEASTMASTER II comments section and the RED CLIFF comments section doesn’t seem right. We need a spark. Is this where I’m supposed to compare something to Batman? Or discuss hip hop? Or are people just sleeping on the Woo? There’s no justice in the world.

  25. The original Paul

    December 5th, 2010 at 6:58 am

    Mouth – maybe the problem is that Woo doesn’t inspire the kind of rabid fanbase that he used to.

    Vern – ok I got a problem here.

    See, I thought your review made the movie sound great – really worth watching. But my biggest problem with Woo – and it’s one that occurs in every film of his I’ve seen – is his persistent overuse of “Slo-Mo”. (IMO the biggest curse to blight action movies in the period before shakycam and after “Stop or my Mom will shoot”.)

    See, this is the ONLY problem I have with “Face Off”. It’s a great over-the-top action movie with some fantastic mega-acting from Cage and Travolta. But the opening action sequence almost put me off, and the closing action sequence also disappointed me, because of the excessive slo-mo. It just.. breaks the flow… of the.. action.

    There’s a reason why what’s widely credited to be John Woo’s best piece of directing ever is a two-and-a-half minute tracking shot in “Hard Boiled”, with no breaks, no cuts, and no slo-mo!

    So I gotta ask… how bad is it? It obviously didn’t bother you that much, and this film is getting a lot of recommendations here. But I’m the guy who found parts of “Lord of the Rings” almost unwatchable, especially the Helm’s Deep sequence (big, epic battle, done over 45 minutes) because they were just SO overdone and could easily have taken a third of the time without diminishing any of the impact.

    I guess what I’m asking is – is this a four-hour film which makes good use of that time, or is it a four-hour film that could’ve been fit into one-and-a-half hours if you left out the unnecessary tracking shots and slow motion bullshit?

  26. Jareth,

    “It’s an insane performance; he’s riveting without uttering a word of dialogue.”

    They do kinda cheat and give him a bunch of voiceover narration though. I like the way he seems kinda goofy and charming through the whole movie, then at the end he apparently does something completely horrifying to that one guy he had been harassing earlier. For no good reason. Very bizarre.

  27. marlow : Yeah , that’s true , Lu Bu wasn’t loyal at all . But if you think that in the book he is able to hold back , at the same time , Guan Yu , Zhang Fei and Liu Bei , you kind of immediately understand the magnitude of his badassery. Plus he was the owner of the best horse in all of China , Red Hare. One of these days I’m going to try the videogames , man.

    It’s unfortunate that Lu Bu is only in TV series , never seen over here. But , right now , there’s a new one with Sammo Hung and Maggie Q , with Lu Bu in the cast :

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1514753/

    Anyone knows anything about this ?

  28. Kermit, the link for IMDB has an incorrect poster for the TV series. Andy Lau, Maggie Q, Sammo Hung are in a movie version. This is the actual IMDB link for the movie.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0882978/

    I guess it was a mini-series, not a full series, that they made into a 90 minute movie version which is what you can get readily in the States.

  29. One thing that does bother me about the film: for a supposedly wise and smart leader, Zhou Yu was really, really dense when it came to realising his wife was pregnant. There’s that whole scene where she’s writing out a name for some reason, then holds his head to her stomache and asks if he can hear anything, and he STILL needs her to write him a letter saying she’s with child before he gets it!

  30. ^Stomach even, I always get that confused.

  31. Others have already mentioned this, but I’ll back up their claim and say that was a truly epic review for a truly epic film. On Netflix it looks as if there is also a shorter cut of the film and the longer two part version. Looks to me like the shorter version is some sort of Americanized BS. I hate it when American distributors underestimate the audience’s attention span. If there was any justice in the world, then the people who recut foreign films for an American audience would be considered truly anti-American and would be routinely villified on Fox News.

  32. I wish some of the greek legends got some great movies made about them. Instead we got Troy. Shit pie of a film.

  33. OK, The Original Paul, it’s on. I’m still rabid for Woo, and generally try not to jump onto the boards unless I have something beyond enthusiasm to express. But … the tracking shot in Hard-boiled is “widely credited” to be his best piece of directing ever? I think that’s an easy thing for people to latch on to because long tracking shots are easy to recognize and quantify – never mind that, if I’m remembering correctly, there’s a glorious bit of superfluous slo-mo when Chow and Leung simply trade sides of the corridor. But even if somebody limits evaluation of Woo’s skills to technical chops, I think parts of the Better Tomorrow series, Bullet in the Head, and especially The Killer all show invention and sophistication beyond a well-choreographed string of pop-up targets. In TK, e.g., there are unique, iconic moments like Sally Yeh’s attempt to remember Chow’s face, and a lot of less flashy but brilliantly conceived and executed sequences interweaving Chow’s storyline with Lee’s – say, the mutual assignment of Tony Weng, or Lee’s success at placing himself in Chow’s head in the aftermath of the Chu Kong betrayal. To me, Hard-boiled has always been Woo’s attempt to show that he could *limit* his abilities to better resemble then-current Western action pictures in order to give him options once the HK handover to China came to pass. (Also, unlike on his previous classics, Woo doesn’t have a writing credit on Hard-boiled, which makes me think he didn’t have as much of an emotional investment and longterm brewing of inspiration with this one.)

    Incidentally, I just started playing Woo’s Stranglehold for the PS3, which is so in love with slo-mo that it kicks into “Tequila Time” whenever you, e.g., slide down a banister or dive through the air. Your opponents slow down, and you paradoxically get more reward than you would if you were simply standing/running. Between this and all the birds, it certainly doesn’t shy away from elements Woo gets knocked for.

  34. Lawrence : Yeah , I noticed something fishy going on in that link I posted . Thanks for letting me know. Still , it’s more Three Kingdoms with Sammo and Maggie !

  35. O.G. Paul: I’m not the biggest Woo fan – I find some of his stuff kind of tacky and overwrought – but if there was a problem with the slow motion in RED CLIFF it certainly didn’t announce itself to me. Jet Li’s WARLORDS was more conspicuous about it. In fact, I’d say that Woo made an effort to tone down some of his Wooisms. Except the bird. He goes nuts with birds.

    I’m not a huge fan of the LORD OF THE RINGS, and I can say that I preferred RED CLIFF over even the best moments of those films. Obviously that will be a minority opinion. Woo’s pacing and the complexity of the script makes the time fly by. It never dragged and, better still, it’s never maudlin.

    Dan Prestwich: It wouldn’t be a Wong Kar-AWai film if someone wasn’t narrating. But you’re right, of course. Though, in fairness, Kaneshiro’s character in FALLEN ANGELS never uses the narration to describe his actions, like “today I’m gonna drag some sap off the street into this store that I just broke into in the middle of the night and give him a haircut he doesn’t want.” All of that stuff is nonverbal.

  36. Vern, the most beautiful opening paragraph ever written. “redcliffhanger” indeed needs to be in the lexicon. Would you say Back to the Future II or Matrix Reloaded ended in Redcliffhangers? They certainly wanted to. Maybe Avatar 2 will end in a redcliffhanger.

    Although the Curse of Van Damme seems paradoxical for all. Woo eeked out Face/Off during the Hollywood years, and Tsui Hark went back and did Time and Tide.

    However, when I looked up “quim” it wasn’t about battles. Anyone else?

  37. Paul, I can’t really predict what movies you would like or not like, because I just can’t decode your tastes. But yes, if slow motion pisses you off for some weird reason then you should definitely avoid all the great works of Woo, De Palma, Peckinpah, Scorsese, Tarantino and most kung fun or action movies made since the ’70s, since it is a commonly used cinematic technique.

  38. Stranglehold is a fun game though, and since slo-mo is Woo’s thing it really makes sense as a game strategy in that context. I actually thought of it more as a Shoot ‘Em Up game, since that movie was so inspired by Woo, and the game is more ridiculous. But it’s Tequila, not Clive Owen.

  39. The original Paul

    December 5th, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Inspector Li – let’s say then, widely credited by gormless “fanboys” on Internet forums, if that makes you feel any better. Look, you can spend all day coming up with “better” examples of Woo’s technique, and I probably wouldn’t be able to argue with you. Let’s just agree that the one-take tracking shot in “Hard-Boiled” is a technical triumph of action film-making. Sound good?

    Vern – EXCESSIVE slow motion pisses me off when it interrupts the action, which is seems to do in that one clip that you posted. And yes, I think it’s the old-world equivalent to the shakycam or avid farts.

    Used properly, in moderation, and for the right reasons, it can be effective. What annoys me is, like the “blue filter” business I was complaining about in the “Collector” thread, when it’s used as a lazy substitute for proper pacing or to create artificial dramatic tension.

    Or to put it another way: “Traffic” made excellent use of “obvious” filters, and I’m sure there are many films that have made good use of slow-mo. (Although I gotta say I’m hard-pressed to think of one on the spur of the moment. Probably because a really effective film-making technique shouldn’t be obvious at all.) It’s one of a whole bunch of “tools” in a film-maker’s arsenal. It can be used for good or for evil. I don’t think many people would disagree that the slow-motion in “Mission: Impossible 2” is, to put it mildly, over-utilised. (I counted at least three slow-mo shots of Tom Cruise’s hair blowing in the wind. There are probably more.)

    But let me question you on one thing: when, apart from in a couple of notable scenes in “Kill Bill” (where he’s making a deliberate stylistic choice to satirise kung-fu cinema in general) did Tarantino EVER use slow-mo? I’m curious because I’m thinking through Death-Proof, Reservoir Dogs, Basterds, and Pulp Fiction, and I can’t think of a single example. Heck, in Reservoir Dogs, the climatic shooting following the Mexican standoff is deliberately played completely straight. As is Marvin’s head being blown off in “Pulp Fiction”, Marcellus crossing the road, Jules and Vincent shooting the guy who’d come out of the back room, etc.

    If Tarantino used slow-motion (and I can’t remember him doing so) then obviously it was done effectively enough that it doesn’t draw attention to itself as a technique – since I can’t ever remember it. Oh, and for the record, not noticing the “mechanics” of a film is a GOOD THING. I want to be involved in the storyline and characters, not the mechanics.

  40. Well, Tarantino was a last second addition because I thought about this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzMpH9jjo4w

    De Palma is the best example, because you can’t front on CARRIE. I mean, maybe you could, but seriously, please don’t.

    But let’s not turn this into a slo-mo debate. Yes, Woo uses it very effectively in this movie, just as he has done in most of his movies, and I couldn’t tell you how much or little he uses it since it’s not something that normally bothers me or most people as far as I have ever heard of.

  41. In CITY OF LOST SOULS Miike used slow motion really memorably during the cock-fight scene, particularly when the fighting chickens break into a MATRIX parody.

  42. i was going to see this at the Sydney Film Festival but the premiere sold out the State Theatre. this is the same theatre that hosts Hollywood premieres and massive concerts. guess i’ll catch it on DVD

    the characters are pretty familiar to gamers. there’s a whole series of games (Dynasty Warriors) where you just play Three Kingdoms generals leading armies and kicking the ass of opposing armies single-handedly.

  43. There’s brief slo-mo in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I recall Eli Roth and one of the other basterds doing a slow-mo run towards the balcony booth that Hitler is in and shooting the guards point blank with pistols. But then again there are a handful of scenes in that film that make a great case against slow-mo, like the tavern shoot-out’s heart-stopping real time execution.

    Paul, have you seen THE UNTOUCHABLES? I’d cite the staircase baby carriage scene as an ultimate example of amazing slow-mo.

    As with most things, the technique itself is not the problem, it’s how filmmakers choose to use it.

  44. Bullet in the Head contains two of my favourite Woo scenes, both featuring Simon Yam. The first is when Tony Leung meets Simon in the toilets of a bar. Simon shoots a guy in the back while “I’m a Believer” by the Monkeys plays out in the bar. The second is the best “knife thrown across the room into a guy’s throat” scene ever.

  45. Do you like cool epic stuff? http://www.comingsoon.net/news/tvnews.php?id=72153 Winter is fucking Coming!

  46. Inspector Li- “Also, unlike on his previous classics, Woo doesn’t have a writing credit on Hard-boiled, which makes me think he didn’t have as much of an emotional investment and longterm brewing of inspiration with this one.”
    I’d think any time a director makes a point of putting himself in a movie, and even uses his own name for the character, shows he’s got investment in it.

  47. I liked PAYCHECK.

  48. I’ve been trying to figure out when slow-mo makes sense and when it becomes a crutch. I have no problem with slow-mo in most John Woo films, for example, but for some reason I cannot stand it in the Zack Snyder films. One reason is obviously the overabundance of slow-mo. Snyder seems to have some sort of fetish. His use of slow-mo also seems less fluid. There’s something about it that looks fake, like the difference between CGI and practical effects. I’m not sure how Snyder gets his slow-mo effects, but I wouldn’t be surprised if its in a different manner than just increasing the speed of the film. But then again, there’s a lot about Snyder’s movies that I don’t particularly enjoy, so that might have something to do with it as well.

  49. HK slow-mo action scenes seem to be making a point of saying “this is actually real! We actually got a guy to do this crazy stuff and we’ve slowed it down to show you!”. Snyder’s 300/Watchmen slo-mo was more “this stuff is so fake! Look how we can manipulate time, motion and
    camera movement! Ain’t technology great?”

    Someone asked about Reign of Assassins, which John Woo co-directed – it’s excellent. A decidedly more intimate film (there are only about half a dozen locations in the whole film). It hits on a lot of Woo’s obsessions of cameraderie, two sides of the same coin, and people
    wanting to transform part of themselves, either their appearance or their very nature.

  50. Limey, yeah – I really liked Paycheck too, I don’t see why people hate it so much. Hell, I’d actually go so far as to say I liked it better than Minority Report, since it stayed consistent from beginning to end and didn’t fly off the rails.

  51. Paycheck isn’t a good movie. I really can’t believe somebody here things the opposite.

  52. Lawrence, so what did you not like about it? And I’m not saying you’re one of these guys, but the biggest complaint I’ve heard from people is the PG-13 rating, which I don’t even count as a complaint. I guess some directors have to be pigeonholed (or doveholed in this case) into making a gory Hard R shoot em up every single time or he’s sold out or something. I mean The Fugitive was a perfectly fine PG-13 action movie that didn’t feature the eye-gougings and throat-rippings of Under Siege and nobody accused Andrew Davis of selling out the way they did to Woo with this movie.

  53. The thing I like about PAYCHECK is watching Woo intentionally try to make a film that replaces many of his signature elements with other things. As an experiment, I think it’s interesting.

    The thing I like about slow motion in Woo’s movies is that it provides moments of reflection at the awesomeness that I am witnessing. Since some of his action scenes are so long and intricate, the slow motion shots often serve to give me moments to contemplate the beauty of things blowing up and people getting shot at exactly the right moments, before I return to being so viscerally entranced that I’m too excited to notice. It adds to the musical, ballet of violence quality that many of his action sequences share, which to me acts as a comment on the bullets flying and good versus evil stuff, it takes me beyond empathy with whoever the hero is into thinking about the meaning of the action.

    I also like RED CLIFF more than The Lord of the Rings movies, because I like all other movies more than those

  54. Really liked browsing around on your blog, it’s a little like mine. If you feel like it, you should see what you think of my site. Anyone can post comments and it’s always great to get opinions from people I don’t know.

  55. I just didn’t think the plot, acting, directing, writing, were very good at all. I also found it really boring. Also, how many directors can say they’ve properly used the talents of Uma Thurman well other than Tarantino?

  56. See I was strangely charmed by the fact that Uma took a back seat (love interest, but not helpless damsel in distress) in a post Kill Bill movie. You figure she would have pulled a Milla Jovovich and actioned it up for a while, but I personally thought she did good solid supporting work. I mean, somebody’s gotta play those parts.

    As for utilizing her talents – I’d say the sex scene in Mad Dog & Glory might have been her best work. Aside from the obvious, she’s really layered and complex in that scene.

  57. I will give you that her skin is too orange in PAYCHECK.

  58. Okay, that was a cheap shot, I really have only seen part of PAYCHECK on cable. But WINDTALKERS didn’t fit my point because it’s right in his territory and still terrible. In fairness I will get to these later Hollywood Woo movies later on and try to review them objectively. I was already planning to rewatch MI2 at some point, but first I gotta watch THE KILLER and BULLET IN THE HEAD again.

  59. The original Paul

    December 6th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Gwai Lo – That was kinda my point. I’m sure there are examples out there of slow-mo used effectively. Heck, I’ve even thought of one – the original “Infernal Affairs”. Some great use of the technique there. In particular the supreme moment at the end when he’s entering the lift (I don’t want to spoil, but people who’ve seen it know what I mean). It’s when it becomes a “crutch”, as someone said, that it becomes a problem. But then, isn’t that the case with every cinematic technique?

    “It’s not something that normally bothers me or most people as far as I have ever heard of.” Gotta disagree with this one – I think you and I probably hang out with different crowds! But I will refrain from “fronting” on Carrie. (Yeah, there’s some fantastic use of the technique at the pivotal scene of that as well. That’s slow motion used effectively, not as a catch-all to emphasize everything from Tom Cruise’s wavy hair to mid-air chest bumps. As awesome as mid-air chest bumps can be, I think that’s overdoing it.)

    I tried to watch “Paycheck” once, and couldn’t get through it. Since Aaron Eckhart gets third billing I’m assuming he was evil (it’s that kind of film) but never found out for sure. Of course, this is Harvey Two-Face we’re talking about here.

  60. But your PAYCHECK joke was funny, Vern. And I’m not about to say it stands up to his classics. It’s just that, once again, the Woo Zone is still there for me, and I’d rather eat the scraps from his table than an entire feast prepared by Peter Jackson. Although if Peter Jackson prepared a feast, he would probably eat it all himself before I could get any. What were we talking about?
    Oh yeah, I’m looking forward to more Woo Zone reviews. THE KILLER is still my personal favorite.

  61. I remember catching Paycheck on cable a few years ago. As it began I thought it had an interesting premise that could be used to some great effect, but if memory serves, the film fell apart towards the end. It also had one of those annoying endings where the characters realize that money isn’t worth life experiences, but then the whoever (screenwriter, producers, studio) decides that this ending won’t fly, and so by the end of the film the hero finds millions of dollars even after he thought he had lost it all, negating the actual message of the film.

  62. The original Paul

    December 6th, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Oh yeah, I just clicked Vern’s link. COMPLETELY forgot about the Reservoir Dogs opening! D’oh…

  63. The original Paul – Sounds very good. Apologies if the tone was off (it’s not *really* on). I’m unhealthily fanatical about Woo and think that both his fans and detractors often look at only his louder traits … might have chimed in too hard (especially here, because to me these boards draw very few gormless … people here are real perceptive and persuasive, so strong compulsion to engage instead of ignore.)

    And Stu – Very true, that’s not nothing!

  64. Just a reminder, Vern: don’t forget “Last Hurrah For Chivalry”! {g}

    And a great review of RC, though by now you hardly need to hear that again. Aside from playing various Koei games riffing on Rot3K (my favorites being the more strategic Dynasty Tactics series and Kessen2), I’m familiar with the series from borrowing a monstrously huge Chinese TV adaptation from an industrialist friend of my Dad’s–we only got about halfway through it before we had to send it back, and I don’t think we even got as far as the battle of Red Cliff (which is the most famous part of the story).

    There’s a whole movie somewhere by the way (a recent movie I mean, made about the time Woo was doing Red Cliff), about the hero who saves the baby during that fight. He becomes a de facto 4th member of the Three Friends as a result, and the movie follows his side of the storyline up through his death (much later than RC ends). Can’t recall the name of the movie now for the life of me… Not remotely as good as RC, but almost nothing is so I don’t hold that against the movie.

  65. I posted this in the Miscellaneous 2 comments , but Mouth said it was unacceptable , so I will re-post here . Plus I think that this movie is the same Saberman is talking about up above .

    I’ve just finished watching Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon, the DTV movie with Sammo Hung mentioned in the Red Cliff comments section, and it was very enjoyable. It still has some TV derived elements to it that are not very good , like that “blurred-slow-motion” effect and cheap CGI , and it obviously has a fraction of the budget of the Woo movie , but I was truly entertained . There are some big battles and set pieces , with lots of extras running around , and some good , well staged fights , one with Zhang Fei and Guan Yu against Zhao Yun that surprised me . Maggie Q is in another good fight and in my opinion she’s used better here than in any American movie. Andy Lau is a good lead and the movie even has some major male bonding scenes , like a nod to Mr. Woo himself .
    For the book fans , you will see Zhuge Liang and Cao Cao , but also all Five Tiger Generals under the command of Liu Bei , even if only for a brief moment . All in all , I was impressed .

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