From his Hong Kong cop films to his best Hollywood venture, the splendidly bonkers thriller Face/Off, John Woo has been one of cinema's most extrovert and determined stylists, a fella for whom no plot can be too convoluted, no shoot-out too elaborate, no interior complete unless a flock of doves can slow-mo through the window.
Having gone off the boil in the US, Woo has returned to his native China to find his form – and a scale at which to truly express himself. The result is a spectacular epic.
Set during the second century AD, Red Cliff concerns a celebrated episode in Chinese history, when two put-upon kingdoms allied in doughty resistance against all-conquering warlord Cao Cao. Holed up in the eponymous coastal stronghold, viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) consider the 2,000 ships and 800,000 soldiers heading down the Yangtze towards them. Surrender is not an option.
Unlike recent Chinese action films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, there is nothing supernatural about this adventure. The battle sequences have a gritty, stirring sense of realism, whether in the ghastly sense of spears actually piercing bodies, or Cao Cao's diabolical plan to despatch his own typhoid-riddled men into the ranks of his enemy, or the Roman-like formations and deployment of tactics.
While the inestimable Leung, possibly the most soulful actor in the world, anchors the human side of the enterprise, Woo goes to town on the inventive set pieces – the best being the heroes' cheeky trick for replenishing arrows – and the spectacle. He's not all bombast: the most fabulous shot doesn't involve CGI-generated masses, but the unsheathing of a sword, glinting turquoise in the shadows.
After two and a half hours of intense action, you may feel as if you've been through the wars yourself. But buoyed, too, by the answer to an enigmatic assertion made by Zhou Yu's wife: "A thousand books cannot equal a cup of tea".
American comedy is in good nick these days, due largely to the efforts of producer/director Judd Apatow and his merry band, whose films, such as The 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad, have perfected the farce of male dysfunction. The Hangover is from a less illustrious stable. Yet I can't remember when I last laughed so loudly and so consistently through a movie.
Part of the satisfaction is in the shock. At first glance, this seems set to be just another stag night gone awry, as sensible Doug is taken to Vegas by two friends and his prospective, demented brother-in-law, whose baring of his unseemly bottom in the first scene doesn't bode well for the comedy. With the quartet checking into the customary super-suite and toasting the night ahead, all one predicts is ennui.
But then the film skips over the entire evening, taking us to the suite the next morning. A chair is on fire. There is a bird in the hallway, a tiger in the bathroom and a very cute baby in the closet. The friends wake up with no memory of what has passed. And Doug is missing. The Hangover has entered its own, dazzling new territory, as the trio try to piece together the events of the past 12 hours, and find the groom.
Smartly, director Todd Phillips never flashes back to what happened, allowing our imaginations – along with those of the befuddled protagonists – to conjure events out of the weird and wonderful clues: a missing tooth, a new bride, a Chinaman in the trunk and Mike Tyson glowering with a grudge. The misdemeanours on offer in Sin City have never been so creatively explored. Some of the more politically incorrect jokes may stretch the tolerance of some, yet the daring is undercut by a disarmingly unforced charm. Not one of the actors is a household name, all are excellent.
Also Showing: 14/06/2009
Doghouse (92 mins, 15)
If The Hangover (reviewed in Film 2, left) celebrates Hollywood's ability to mine the humour in male misbehaviour, Doghouse (above) reminds us that when the British try that trick, chauvinism results. In the recent Lesbian Vampire Killers, two mates head out to the countryside in search of sex, only to run into a village full of man-hating vampires. Now a group of sexists (led by Danny Dyer, whose name in the credits comes as a health warning) encounter man-hating female zombies. Do the guys see the error of their ways? Of course not. Do we laugh? Indeed, not.
The Last House on the Left (109 mins, 18)
Two girls are raped and killed by a psychotic gang, which in turn falls victim to one of the girl's parents. This remake of Wes Craven's notorious 1970s rape-revenge horror, without any of that film's social critique, is one of an growing number of "torture porn" movies that force you to ask what kind of person could choose to watch such things – then despair at the answer.
New Town Killers (98 mins, 15)
Richard Jobson's latest is an atmospheric but badly scripted thriller in which two Edinburgh bankers hunt and kill the city's unemployed, for sport.
The End of the Line (83 mins, n/c)
Documentary examining the impact of rampant commercial fishing, which, if unchecked, could result in oceans without fish within 40 years. DM