Friday sees the release of an abridged version of John Woo’s new film, “Red Cliff,” a two-part, five-hour epic condensed for American audiences into what’s still an admittedly pretty entertaining regular-length feature.
As Glenn Kenny notes at The Auteurs while comparing the two versions, what’s gone is a lot of character detail and poetic flourishes. What’s left is one ridiculously over-the-top battle scene after another, which is definitely fun if you want to see, say, something called the “Turtle formation.” It is, however, inescapably silly, and I enjoyed it much the same way I enjoyed “Mission: Impossible II” and “Paycheck.”
The decade-plus Woo spent in Hollywood had its ups and downs. The ups included the peak violence of “Face/Off”; the downs, according to conventional wisdom, included practically everything else. “Hard Target” is fine for connoisseurs of Van Damme cheese (I dig it), but was not a dignified start to Woo’s American career. “Broken Arrow” was a hit but not widely beloved. Throw in a Dolph Lundgren direct-to-video special and the final insult of directing a rejected pilot for a “Lost In Space” update before leaving, and you’re sure not looking at the American equivalent of “Hard Boiled.”
But it’s possible to take equal amounts of pleasure in Woo’s cheeseball notions as in his considerable prowess in organizing on-screen violence; they’re just different kinds of pleasure, which is why I enjoy the war scenes just as much as I enjoy a big fake shot of a CGI dove flying endlessly over battlefields.
Those are the exact same pleasures animating the much-maligned “Mission: Impossible II” and “Paycheck.” “MI:II” is indeed ridiculous; that’s why it’s fun. It’s $125 million that’s all on-screen: every shot looks not so much good as expensive — it takes all that money and makes it ludicrous. It’s a movie where “flirting” looks like Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton racing each other along a cliff and sending their cars in dreamy circles.
“Paycheck” — widely despised and dismissed — is more impersonal, but it’s slyly self-mocking in every respect. Ben Affleck was peaking in terms of the flack he was taking and responds with a purposefully blank performance. Woo keeps things efficient, and the final appearance of an exceptionally artificial dove flying in slo-mo is his way of literally flipping the audience the bird. “You want a John Woo movie? Here. Here’s a bird.”
It’s grand that Woo is working abroad again, treated with due reverence rather than as an expendable hired hand. It’s worth remembering, though, that all the flaws and strengths of “Red Cliff” aren’t the return of talents left lying dormant for an hour; they’re the logical extension of what he was doing in Hollywood all along, even when it was looked down on.
[Photos: “Red Cliff,” Magnolia, 2009; “Mission: Impossible II,” Paramount Pictures, 2000]