Red Cliff is the first Chinese-language film from John Woo in more than a decade, and reportedly the most expensive Chineselanguage movie ever made (though, once you see its Lord of the Rings-like immensity, that “reportedly” becomes “oh, totally”). It is two-and-ahalf hours long (trimmed from the nearly five-hour version being shown as two films throughout Asia) and features endless stony stares between enemies and vast CGI armies facing each other across lush screen-saver valleys, the camera pulling back, then upward, through CGI weather to reveal even more CGI battalions.
It also begins somewhat jarringly, with an authoritative narration in the tradition of NFL Films — it was an age of great turmoil throughout China, first and 10, or something — then a frenzied roll call of generals and strategists and prime ministers.
Ride it out. After this choppy patch of exposition, which reveals too plainly the scars of major surgery, Red Cliff settles in as an entertaining hybrid — part Saturday-afternoon matinee war epic, part Xbox 360-esque role-playing strategy game (the dodgy effects do no favors), part sweeping costume drama (featuring some of the worst wigs and bad eyebrows in ages) and part signature Woo. How, you may wonder, would a director synonymous with balletic displays of double-fisted gunplay and slow-motion images of doves fit into the grime of third-century warfare and the waning days of the Han Dynasty? Is it even possible to have a John Woo movie that takes place before the invention of bullets or the tailored business suit? His pictures Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989) remain twin peaks of Hong Kong smooth; those were followed with a decade in Hollywood that proved occasionally fruitful (Face/Off) but more often awkward and uninspired (Mission: Impossible II).
Red Cliff tells the story of the pivotal Battle of Red Cliff (as famous in China as the Battle of Gettysburg is here), which finds vile Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi of Farewell My Concubine) leading an armada into the Southland of China to take on a rabble of rebellious warlords. There are gauzy scenes of lovemaking and calligraphy, cornball dialogue more suited to silent-film cards than human lips.
But Woo, within all that feather and silk, has located a convincing buddy-action picture of sorts. Warrior Zhou Yu, played by Tony Leung of Hard Boiled, finds a soul brother in military strategist Kong Ming, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro of House of Flying Daggers, and they assemble allies and thousands of men and, despite being outmatched in weapons and warriors, plan a formidable response to Cao Cao. Remarkably, the rest is that simple — the rare war movie less concerned with putting a face on sacrifice than showcasing strategy.
Which doesn’t sound very Woo-ish, either. Though here, as in older Woo pictures, a man’s character is revealed by his ego, and by his confidence, and his ability to recognize the line where the former becomes the latter. For those who miss the old click of a Woo gun clip, it has been replaced by the cold sheeesht of a sword pulled from its sheath. And by the final moments, 21st century or third, buddies still find themselves back to back, weapons drawn and looking cool.