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Woo delivers trademark movements in 'Red Cliff'

Special Photo: Magnolia. Fengyi Zhang stars in "Red Cliff," which takes place in third century China.

Special Photo: Magnolia. Fengyi Zhang stars in "Red Cliff," which takes place in third century China.

Red Cliff (R)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

After spending two decades establishing himself as the most successful director in the history of Hong Kong cinema, John Woo moved west to Hollywood where he made a handful of sometimes impressive, often uneven action adventures. Reaching his career nadir with the 2003 "Paycheck," Woo returned home and began work on the most ambitious film of his career.

It is a disservice to anyone attempting to review the U.S. market version of this movie with any degree of accuracy and even more unfair to Woo's considerable American fan base. It's also a safe bet that the 21/2 hour version we're getting here pales in comparison to the original cut that was released in two parts and exceeded five hours in length.

"Red Cliff" marks Woo's first film to be shot in mainland China and it chronicles one of the most important events in that country's history. Even the smallest bit of Internet research will indicate making a movie about what took place there in the early third century would require at least four hours of screen time to get it right.

Think about it. Knowing that a four-hour cut of "Gone with the Wind" exists, how happy would you be watching a version that was a little more than half of the original length?

Action has always been Woo's strong suit and if action is all you want, you'll still get a bunch of it here. The last act features thousands of ornately costumed soldiers and their steeds waging war on an epic scale. Woo's trademark, ballet-inspired movement and slow-motion cinematography have never been better and even those easily upset with blood-soaked violence will appreciate, if not outright revel in what they see.

Knowing that most of Woo's fans are there for action, the many passages of dialogue preceding the battle finale have been distilled down and are expectedly choppy and scattershot. Figuring out what's going on here is like trying to understand a conversation taking place across the room during a cocktail party. Through body movement and attitude you get the gist but can only halfway understand the details. Trying to piece it all together here via subtitles only adds to the frustration level.

It's hard to fathom that an artist with such high integrity and dedication to his craft like Woo would willingly allow such a labor of love like this to be comprised in this manner. Even after 35 years of making movies and receiving the praise of everyone he's ever worked with, Woo still can't seem to get an ounce of respect from the Hollywood suits.

All is not lost. It's all but certain that the DVD will include Woo's grand vision in its entirety and as tempting as it might be, Woo fans -- out of symbolic respect for him -- should patiently wait for it. (Magnolia)

Presented in Chinese with English subtitles.