John Woo is one of the great action directors of all time. With Chow Yun Fat as his star he elevated the Hong Kong chop socky genre to an elegant art form. Anytime you see someone diving in slow motion through the air with two .45 automatics blazing away you can nod your head in the direction of John Woo. If you have a chance to watch Bullet In the Head, The Killer, A Better Tomorrow or the classic Hard Boiled, you will see not only some wonderful action sequences (sans computer effects), but also a depth of character and a gracefulness in the story arc that should be the envy of many American action movie stars and directors.
With Red Cliff he returns to China – the mainland this time, not Hong Kong – and he brings with him the broad canvas and big budgets that he experienced in the United States. He also takes on the grand historical style and the spectacle that Zhang Yimou introduced us to with House of Flying Daggers, Hero and the opening of last summer’s Olympic Games.
The story is based on an actual battle in 208 AD that signaled the end of the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao, the prime minister who controls the Emperor, leads an army of nearly one million men and 10,000 ships against two rival warlords, one from the west the other from the south. The warlords form an alliance, and with the counsel of a master strategist Zhou Yu, they defeat Cao Cao.
The battle, and indeed the entire film, is like a chess game played by gods. Except the gods are men, complicated, flawed and necessarily devious men. Besides the grand spectacle, magnificent hand-to-hand combat and a goodly amount of splattering blood, what John Woo brings to this story is a sense of the deep camaraderie that grows between men. Woo demonstrates the notion that a great warrior is a man who listens closely to what the earth tells him and who seeks a harmony with nature.
All films in the Milwaukee Film Winter Edition Film Festival will screen at the Marcus North Shore Cinema, located at 11700 N. Port Washington Rd., Mequon. For showtimes, click here.
Mark Metcalf is a writer, professional actor and resident of Milwaukee. He hosts TCD’s weekly podcast “Backstage with Mark Metcalf” and authors the film blog “Moving Pictures.” Mark is also Milwaukee Film’s Director of Collaborative Cinema, giving area students hands-on experience with film-making.