It’s probably fair to say that John Woo went limping back to Hong Kong. In the ’80s and early ’90s, Woo changed the Hong Kong film industry by making some of the best action movies of all time: Hard Boiled, The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head. He then spent a decade in Hollywood, where he had his hits and his misses. He started out with 1993’s Hard Target, which is maybe the most insane Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, and therefore also maybe the best. He made 1997’s Face/Off, a classic piece of lunacy that still holds up beautifully today, if only because time has made it seem even more absurd. He made Mission: Impossible II, which is probably the least-beloved movie in that franchise, but made a ton of money and is also awesome. (It climaxes with Tom Cruise throwing a somersault legdrop. Fuck you guys. It’s dope.)
But Woo’s last two movies in America were both duds: Windtalkers, a shitty 2002 war movie, and the following year’s Paycheck, a shitty dystopian sci-fi movie with Ben Affleck. (Paycheck, like the more recent Pan, had the sort of title that everyone immediately turned into a punchline. Message to whoever names movies: Stop doing this to yourselves.) After Paycheck, Woo didn’t make any movies for five years, and all his American projects fell apart. Tragically, we will never get to see his adaptation of the video game Spy Hunter, which was supposed to star the Rock; there’s a special place in movie hell for whoever fucked that one up. So instead, Woo went back to Hong Kong and made a beautiful, epic shit-stomper about an ancient Chinese battle. He didn’t need to deal with all that Hollywood backroom bullshit after all. He could’ve been doing this the whole time.
You need to know a couple of things about 2008’s Red Cliff going into it. First: It is a huge movie, an old-school cast-of-thousands epic that feels more expansive and ambitious than any movie Woo had ever made. Second: You will spend a whole lot of this movie lost. Partly, that’s because we’re dealing with Chinese folklore, and unless you grew up hearing stories about Cao Cao and Zhou Yu, you’re going to find yourself stuck in wait, who’s that guy? mode. But mostly, that’s because the version available on Netflix is literally half of the movie. Woo made Red Cliff as a sprawling two-part blowout: two movies, both of them two and a half hours long. But the version that came out in America has been edited together into one installment. Even though the resulting two-and-a-half-hour compromise is a serious time commitment, it omits entire characters and subplots. If you’re a film-purist type, that’s the sort of thing that will drive you nuts.
I haven’t seen the full two-part version, and plenty of people who have seen it love it. But I can tell you that the single-movie version, the one on Netflix, is still very much worth the time and the confusion. Part of that is that it’s just cool to see a vast, sweeping movie this expertly executed. The movie tells the story of a Chinese battle that went down in the third century A.D., so we don’t get to see Woo executing all his trademark tricks—heroes flying through the air firing two guns at once, doves flapping in slow-motion through chapels, etc. But we do get to see him use wind to dramatically blow robes and flags around, and we get to see him making flashy camera moves that technology had never allowed him before. Red Cliff cost $80 million to make, and it looks like it cost at least twice that. There’s one long CGI-assisted tracking shot of a dove flying above one army’s camp, across a river, past an insane number of warships, and then over to where the enemy army is plotting its next movie. It’s breathtaking.
But this isn’t just an epic movie—it’s an epic movie from John motherfucking Woo, which means it has some seriously incredible action scenes. Tony Leung, who starred in Hard Boiled 17 years earlier, gets to pull an arrow out of his own chest, spin through the air, and use it to stab a cavalry rider in the neck. Takeshi Kaneshiro gets to calmly sip tea and giggle while the invading army fires thousands of arrows at his boat. Another guy, in something of a Hard Boiled homage, slices his way out of a burning village with a baby strapped to his back. There are many, many badass moments in this thing.
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While there’s a huge cast and a ton of smaller story lines, the basic plot is simple enough. Cao Cao, the leader of the imperial army, pressures China’s emperor to declare war on a couple of relatively independent warlords in the South. Those warlords unite and form a ragtag group of rebels who have to fight off the much larger, better-equipped army, using every trick they can conjure to squeak out a victory. Cao Cao wants to overthrow the empire, and he considers himself a military genius. He stands on the deck of his warship and bellows things like, “On dragons and the wind, I will take flight!” He talks about wanting to carve his poetry into the face of a cliff. Meanwhile, the rebels aren’t sure they trust each other, but they know they’ll have to fight together to preserve their culture and their way of life. They know they’re the last things stopping this asshole from taking everything over.
In a way, you can think of Red Cliff as a Chinese version of Troy—only if Troy was a really good movie and not a just-okay one. You already knew the story of Troy; the fun part was supposed to be seeing it play out on such a grand scale. The people of China presumably knew the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs. It involves vast navies and legendary warriors and a woman who may have inadvertently caused all this carnage. (Cao Cao has it bad for Southern leader Zhou Yu’s wife, and she plays a crucial role in the battle.)
Another way the movie is like Troy: You’ve got these armies of thousands, but sometimes everyone has to stop to watch a couple of mythic warriors go at it. The Southern army has characters like Zhang Fei, who you will probably come to know as “the big motherfucker with the beard and the eyebrows.” He mows through enemy troops unarmed, snapping spears over his knee and throwing soldiers around like stuffed animals. He’s fucking great. But Woo has just as much fun showing military tactics. There’s an amazing scene where the Southerners lure the imperial army into a trap, pinning them into this intricate tortoise-shaped formation of shields and picking them off one by one. When his own soldiers start catching typhoid, Cao Cao retaliates by sending boats full of dead bodies to the Southerners’ villages, knowing that he’ll spread the disease. A change of wind direction proves to be a pivotal turning point in the final battle. And Woo shows just as much excitement and verve in these big macro scenes as he does in the individual duels.
The second part of Red Cliff came out in 2009, and Woo has made two more movies since then. They’re both historical dramas, and neither of them has come out in the U.S., which is shitty. Because if this one teaches us anything, it’s that you can never count a great director out. John Woo had his years in the wilderness, but he still had it in him to come back and make a movie as awe-inspiring as this. Someone should really lure him back here and see if they can’t convince him to make that Spy Hunter movie after all.
This will be the last edition of the Netflix Action Movie Canon. I’ve had a blast writing it. Thanks to Rob Harvilla for giving me a place to talk about these movies, and thanks to everyone else for reading.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.