Film Review: ‘Cliff Walkers’ Delivers Suspense and Style

Film Review: ‘Cliff Walkers’ Delivers Suspense and Style

A country being at war changes life for its citizens. In many cases, the conflict is not at home and those who do not join up for or are not involuntarily conscripted for service will remain far from the battlefield, left to ration precious supplies and fill in the gaps left by those who have gone to fight. When the war is much closer, the population has no choice but to be involved. And then there are those who choose to go back behind enemy lines and risk their lives to carry out an important mission, fully aware that they are comprising their safety and putting themselves in direct danger. In this spy thriller, that concept is especially compelling given the high stakes of the depicted operation.

The stage is set in Manchukuo, the puppet state operated in northeastern China by Japan in the early 1930s. Communist agents from China who have been trained in the Soviet Union are attempting to carry out Operation Utrennya, with allies in place to help them execute it at every turn. But each fateful point of the mission also includes those who seek to capture and kill them, aided by one of their ranks who has switched sides to save his own life and can provide crucial information that puts the agents even more at risk.

This is a film that depicts the strength of personal relationships simultaneously intertwined with the value of anonymity. One scene aboard a train shows a passenger being taken into custody and others in the car realizing that, though they cannot know for sure, she must be on the same assignment, and they must regroup and strategize to rescue her. The seemingly endless network of spies in place helps keep the tension steady throughout the course of this film, and though some are destined for death, others are impossibly resourceful, continually outsmarting those who believe they have the upper hand and managing to both survive and endure.

As an action film, Cliff Walkers succeeds by keeping its pacing slow and transitioning at a moment’s notice from a seemingly safe and mundane setting to something far more exhilarating. The best car chases have typically featured sleek-looking vehicles zipping down roads, and this film proves that sometimes, simplicity goes considerably further. A blanket of snow serves as a stirring backdrop for one such scene that employs little flair but remains gripping throughout as it remains uncertain which of the two dueling parties will emerge victorious, if either of them.

That unassuming approach ultimately defines this film’s effectiveness. Director Zhang Yimou, known for films like Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, guides his actors and their movements with subtlety, allowing his characters to speak for themselves and the energy level of any given moment to be determined by the investment of its players. Though it grounds itself in history, this is a story that benefits from narrative padding to amplify the intrigue, tempered and measured by Yimou in how he keeps it from turning into a typical Western blockbuster that might grant its characters superhuman abilities and impeccable combat training that makes them impervious to any attack or threat. These so-called cliff walkers are, however, quite impressive, and their prowess and humanity make this film a gripping and involved watch.

Grade: B+

Cliff Walkers will be released in U.S. and international theaters on Friday, April 30th.

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