Red Cliff and Ninja Assassin: what’s a martial arts fan to choose?

Things are about to get messy in “Ninja Assassin” (Image courtesy Warner Bros.)

For those who believe nothing quite says Thanksgiving like a martial arts movie, we have not one but two rock ’em sock ’em extravaganzas opening in Minnesota this weekend: “Ninja Assassin” and “Red Cliff.”

Both are directed by big names: James McTeigue of “V for Vendetta” fame, and action film maestro John Woo (“Broken Arrow,” “Face/Off.”)

They also share a number of attributes: high flying stunts, intricately choreographed fights, and a lot of blood.

What they are unlikely to share is much of an audience. They are designed for different demographics.

McTeigue’s “Assassin” is a tale of a highly trained ninja, played by Korean pop star Rain (“Speed Racer”) who has broken with the sadistic leader of the Azuno ninja clan. The clan has a centuries old business model of bumping people off for the all-in price of 100 lbs of gold. That gets you a group of ceiling-hugging sword-swinging guys and gals in black catsuits and facemasks who make short and bloody work of just about anyone. As shadow warriors, the ninja like things dark. The power goes out a lot, and the blades start swinging. These are not people you want to rub the wrong way – which, of course, is exactly what our hero does.

“Ninja Assassin” is a gore-fest, pure and simple, aimed at teenagers. There is so much blood and viscera it quickly descends into horror flick territory.

The plot doesn’t even try to make sense. Why is it that while a ninja hit essentially redecorates a room with bodyparts, Europol the crack investigative unit seems to have missed any evidence of a millennia of such incidents? And why do the ninjas who have the ability to blend into the background so well they disappear suddenly forget all that when they are attacked at home?

This will matter little though for the “Ninja Assassin” audience. The splatter eye-candy is going to sell a lot of tickets.

The army prepares in “Red Cliff” (Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

“Red Cliff” has an older target audience, one with more of an interest in history, and a sense of old-fashioned spectacle.

It has plotting problems too, but for another reason. The film is an amalgamation of two epic films made for the Chinese market. The story of a pivotal battle in Chinese history in the year 208 was originally five hours long, but has now been telescoped into a more cineplex friendly two-and-a-half. You can never escape the sense that you are missing something.

“Red Cliff” has a lot going for it. There’s the star-studded cast including Tony Leung, Takeshi Kuneshiro, and Zhao Wei.

It is visually stunning. Woo captures the spectacle of thousands of soldiers in hand to hand combat unflinchingly. He uses a host of special effects to take the audience through clouds of arrows, and across the battlefield with a messenger pigeon. He takes us through the dramatic landscape of the river gorge as the battle approaches and deep into the horrors of the climactic battle on land and water. It’s breathtaking.

This shortened version of “Red Cliff” does allow for some of the political subtlety of the story, but we never get very deep into the minds of the characters. This is a titanic struggle, involving thousands of people. Yet other than occasional back hand remarks, we never get to hear about the human side of the battle, and that’s a shame.

It’s not often that I leave a movie of this length wanting more, but I did after seeing “Red Cliff.” There are DVDs of the original two movies available. Of course, that can’t replicate the big screen experience.

So who will win the “Ninja Assassin” “Red Cliff” smackdown? The ninjas will be carving up the audiences this thanksgiving, but Red Cliff is here for the long haul. And for all the non-martial arts fans, there’s always “The Road” and “The Fantastic Mr Fox.”