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Asian Action at Theaters

Red Cliff and Ninja Assassin Open

Above: John Woo's "Red Cliff"

Audio

Aired 11/24/09

KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews Red Cliff and Ninja Assassin

Transcript

If you like action then you’ll have something to be thankful for this holiday weekend as third century Chinese armies and ninja assassins invade theaters. This Thanksgiving holiday two very different kinds of action films square off at theaters: John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff” (opens November 27 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) or the video game-like “Ninja Assassin" (opened November 25 throughout San Diego).

If you are an action junkie like me than you have been waiting a long time for Hong Kong director John Woo to return to Asia to make his dream project “Red Cliff.” Inspired by actual events that took place in third century China, “Red Cliff” serves up a historical epic about how a smaller army can defeat a larger more powerful one through teamwork, innovative strategy, and sheer audacity.

This marks Woo’s first film to be shot in Mainland China and his first in decades to use a period setting. But to Woo there’s no difference in how he approaches action.

John Woo: I mean a gun battle or a battle with two swords, it still remains the same themes of friendship, love, courage, and romanticism…

“Red Cliff,” like Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films, is infused with what’s been called “heroic bloodshed,” a romanticized sense of action in which the characters, regardless of their background or situation, display heroic qualities. In “Red Cliff,” a soldier rescues a baby while fighting off a slew of enemies…

Then the generals display a prowess in the field that’s breathtaking. Only John Woo could have a man riding full tilt on a horse and have him gracefully lean over to catch a spear in midair and without missing a beat flip it over to attack his enemy. You might be surprised to discover that a major influence on Woo’s action style is MGM musicals.

John Woo: Whenever I am choreographing the action sequence I still feel I am choreographing a dancing sequence. I am so concerned about the rhythm of the action and the beauty of the body movements that it’s like a dance. So yes it still gives me a lot of influence.

Yet despite finding awe-inspiring beauty in action, Woo also creates films with strong emotional cores. His favorite themes involve honor and loyalty, but Woo is also concerned with the cost of violence especially within the context of war.

John Woo: Even though it is a war movie, it also has a pretty strong message of anti-war. I would also like to stress that in war there are no winners.

“Red Cliff” is Woo’s finest film in years. The battles are orchestrated in stunning manner and the action always reveals something about the characters. The only bad thing is that U.S. distributors didn’t think American audiences could sit through the two-part epic in it’s original near five-hour length. So what’s arriving at Landmark is a truncated one-part version of the film. This reduced version keeps much of the action intact but loses the intricacies and complex dynamics of relationships.

But there’s nothing complex about “Ninja Assassin.” It’s a totally mindless but fun action film aimed squarely at males who love gory video games. The plot – what little there is – involves a boy trained to be, well you know, a ninja assassin.

Master: Abandoned your parents and without a home you should have died but instead you fought and your entire life has brought you to this point, now you must prove.

Although “Ninja Assassin” is not based on an actual video game, it reveals how Hollywood is trying to tap into the huge gaming audience that made Modern Warfare a record breaking best seller. “Ninja Assassin” has Korean pop star Pain playing a renegade ninja challenging his old master and fighting off an army of assassins. As in a video game the enemy attacks in massive waves and is killed off in rapid, bloody fashion. The protagonist -- who stands in for the gamer -- has the power to heal himself so he can keep reviving to fight more ninjas.

“Ninja Assassin” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is – dumb violent fun. And if that’s what you’re looking for and expecting, you won’t be disappointed. But there’s no story and zero character development. The fact that there’s not much talking is actually a relief since the film is far more eloquent with its action than its dialogue, which is strained and clichéd.

Here's a sample: "Do you remember the sound she made when I stuck her?"

Ouch! The action is courtesy of 87Eleven, an L.A. based stunt company. Here they deliver fast and furious action with no time to enjoy any beauty or grace as Woo does. They have obviously been influenced by Asian action films and by video games. But in this context, they don’t get to display much variety.

So as I head into the holidays, I’m thankful to see the master of heroic bloodshed back on the big screen but I’d be a lot more grateful if “Ref Cliff” were screening in its entirety and if Hollywood action films would stop ripping off Asian ones and start developing a unique style of their own.

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