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Originally published Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Movie review

Review: Heavily edited 'Red Cliff' will disappoint true Woo fans

"Red Cliff" has plenty of battle action and other signature elements of John Woo's style, but some subtler subplots were lost in the editing.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Red Cliff,' with Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro. Directed by John Woo, from a screenplay by Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu, based loosely on the book "Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms." In Mandarin, with English subtitles. 148 minutes. Neptune.

In his third-century Chinese war epic "Red Cliff," director John Woo wanted to make an Asian version of "Troy." Except the warriors looked like they were storming the beach of Normandy.

Woo, whose balletic gangster flicks have been so much imitated and parodied, may have left his favorite genre temporarily, but he's still raiding the pyrotechnics prop room. More ships explode and more things go "boom!" in the night here than in most World War II movies.

Woo's epic is a loosely based historical account of one of China's most famous battles, involving Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) who wanted to expand the empire southward in 208 A.D. There's also a Helen-of-Troy-like figure who inspired him to launch his thousand ships.

Two rival kingdoms joined forces to stop Cao's army at the Battle of Red Cliff.

Outnumbered, the kingdoms rely on viceroy Zhou Yu and military strategist Zhuge Liang (played by Asian superstars Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, respectively) to outsmart the massive enemy forces. More military strategies get airtime here than in most war documentaries on the History Channel.

Last year, "Red Cliff" broke all box-office records in China, where the five-hour movie was released in two parts. The movie was edited to two-and-a-half hours in the United States.

The two long, spectacular battle scenes were left intact. Massive battalions fighting on foot and on horseback, on land and at sea — highly stylized, choreographed fights that look like dance numbers in a musical, with slow motion and Mexican standoffs, Woo's motifs.

Woo's much-anticipated epic marks his return to China after his stint in Hollywood ("Broken Arrow," "Face/Off"). But the U.S. version of "Red Cliff" has been so heavily edited that the character development, subplots, love story, the historical significance of the battle and Woo's signature themes of male bonding and honor got lost.

What's left is an entertaining action flick. Not a bad consolation prize, but not the complex, multilayered drama that made "Red Cliff" a hit in Asia.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

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