Review by Sean Boelman
Zhang Yimou is undoubtedly one of the finest directors of our time, having directed some of the greatest action movies of the 21st century. It is understandable why fans are excited to see his first foray into the spy thriller genre, but unfortunately his talents are wasted on Cliff Walkers, which amounts to little more than a Chinese propaganda film.
The movie follows four Communist Party special agents who return to China after training in the Soviet Union, only to find themselves at odds with their Japanese oppressors when a traitor is revealed in their ranks. It’s a convoluted film of double crosses and espionage, and while the team’s “secret mission” is only alluded to, we know it’s true purpose due to the nature of the movie.
Much of what the film has to say about heroism and martyrdom won’t mean anything to Western audiences. This is a movie made to honor the heroes of the revolution, and it plays out as such. Although it’s not quite as jingoistic as a lot of Chinese blockbusters with patriotic themes, these ideas are still there, and not very subtle.
The film’s biggest shortcoming is its lack of character development. The audience isn’t given a whole lot of context as to who these characters are. While this will likely be more forgivable for Chinese viewers who identify with them as countrymen, American audiences will be left questioning who these characters are and why they are important.
This is largely an ensemble piece, and while the movie does contain some notable Chinese stars, the script never affords them the opportunity to shine on an individual level. Ultimately, everyone involved in this production — even Zhang — is just another cog in the machine to make this nationalist propaganda.
There are a few cool action set pieces in the film, and these keep it interesting despite the script’s deficiencies in intrigue. Ultimately, it really isn’t anything we haven’t seen before — with a few snow-bound shootouts and one low-octane car chase — and it pales in comparison to the creative choreography that Zhang's movies have had in the past.
However, the action is one area that benefits heavily from Zhang's presence. The script by Yongxian Quan is very basic and would have been quickly forgotten were it not for Zhang's characteristically beautiful visuals. The cinematography is excellent, and Zhang consistently uses the snowy setting of the film to his advantage.
Cliff Walkers is a decent movie, but it’s far from ranking among Zhang's best. Pretty visuals and a few great moments aside, this is a forgettable thriller made primarily for Chinese audiences, and American viewers have no real reason to seek it out unless if they are a hardcore fan of the filmmaker’s work.
Cliff Walkers is now in theaters.