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With the historical epic 'Red Cliff,' director John Woo returns to his action roots

Red Cliff (R) (148 min.) — One of the world's greatest action directors, John Woo, was tempted by Hollywood away from China in the early 1990s, with gradually diminishing results on-screen. Each English-language project — with the loopy exception of Face/Off — pulled Woo further from his roots and muse, eventually dumping junk like Windtalkers and Paycheck into his lap.

Nothing spoils pure cinematic genius more than American ingenuity and dollars.

Returning to his homeland for inspiration, Woo goes back to before the beginning, before such ballistic ballets as Hard Boiled and Bullet in the Head invigorated action flicks everywhere. With Red Cliff, Woo creates the kind of movie he loved as a child; a sprawling historical epic with a cast of thousands, and bloody battles so elaborate and graphically presented that viewers may demand combat pay.

Set in the third century, Red Cliff pits three medieval dynasties against each other with a tenuous alliance between two emperors: Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Yong You), whose combined forces are still outnumbered by those of the Han kingdom, led by shrewd prime minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang). The upstart forces have an ace in the hole, the peerless warrior Zhou Yu (Woo's frequent star Tony Leung) who'll lead the troops to the titular battleground at the Yangtze River.

Red Cliff is an overlong epic — trimmed in half from its original five-hour state, and a sequel in the can — hindered by a serpentine plot that perhaps only students of ancient Chinese dynasties can follow. But this movie rocks when arrows fly, horseback warriors ride, warships sail and swords are swung, as if Woo intends to one-up every Asian director who filled his absence with such films. The master is back with a vengeance, and all that Zhang Yimou and his peers can do is shake their heads in awe.

Red Cliff is playing exclusively at Beach Theatre in St. Pete Beach. Shown with English subtitles. B+

Steve Persall, Times film critic

With the historical epic 'Red Cliff,' director John Woo returns to his action roots 12/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 3:30am]

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