No doubt, many viewers are going to be comparing Red Cliff — director John Woo's sword-and-silk spectacular based on an epic battle that took place in southern China in 208 A.D. — to 300, Zack Snyder's high-tech reimagining of the infamous tussle at Thermoplyae in ancient Greece.
Both center on righteous good versus tyrannical evil. Both feature underdog yet stout-hearted commanders going up against better equipped yet slavish hordes. Both sport legions of CGI warriors ready to wage war until digital death.
Yet, whereas 300 was all about great style, neck-hewing violence and six-pack abs, the somewhat more contemplative yet still visually ravishing and violent Red Cliff catches its breath once in awhile to tell a story and is all the better for it, even if it is equally stylized and far-fetched.
The tale is pretty simple: The emperor Han (Wang Ning) sends his powerful general Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) far to the south to put down rebellious warlords Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (You Yong). But neither Quan nor Bei are intimidated and decide to combine forces, resulting in a sprawling ground and naval clash infused with elements of guerilla warfare.
Heading up the fight for the good guys is Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), who just happens to be married to "the most beautiful woman" in China, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), a fact that has not escaped Cao Cao who wants Xiao Qiao for himself.
With its $80 million budget, Red Cliff is billed as the most expensive Asian film in history and it has been a big hit on that continent. It's also sparked a career revival of sorts for Woo (Mission Impossible II, Face Off), who hasn't released a full-length feature since the less-than-well-received Paycheck six years ago.
Here, he has returned in strong form even if he still relies on storytelling tics — the release of white birds, a warrior fighting with a baby on his back, two warriors at an impasse with weapons drawn on each other — that are now cliche in his films. But these moments don't obscure the movie's many other wide-screen pleasures.
Welcome back, John.
Director: John Woo
Cast: Tony Leung, Fengyi Zhang, You Yong, Chiling Lin
Running time: 147 min.
Rated: R (scenes of epic warfare)
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.