Film Review: Red Cliff

Warring armies clash in third-century China. Epic adventure marks a return to form for director John Woo.

Loosely based on the 13th-century novel Romance of Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff is a vivid account of one of the cornerstone narratives in Chinese culture. Several years in the making, it is director John Woo's first Asian film since he left Hong Kong for Hollywood in 1992. Released in two feature-length parts, the Red Cliff saga has broken box-office records throughout Asia. Almost half of Woo's original vision has been excised for the American version, but what remains is a muscular, focused and uncommonly thoughtful story of war.

Set in the early third century, Red Cliff pits two southern warlords against Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), a crafty prime minister with allegiance to Emperor Han in the north. Opposing him first is Lui Bei (You Yong), the elderly head of the Xu Kingdom. When Lui Bei's forces lose a key battle, military advisor Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) sets off for East Wu to ask for help from Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), hero of earlier battles and Sun Quan's military leader, chooses Red Cliff along the Yangtze River as the site of the showdown with Cao Cao. With vastly inferior forces and supplies, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang must rely on strategy to defeat Cao Cao.

Although it is teeming with characters and plot twists, Red Cliff is told in such a direct and vigorous style that it is never confusing. (The American version adds a brief voice-over and some introductory titles.) Woo paints the leads in broad, colorful strokes, but is careful to present them as humans rather than superheroes. Tellingly, Woo and his screenwriters have turned what is often thought of as a fantasy into something real and down-to-earth. Psychology and science are as important as brawn and derring-do, and what in other films and books seemed like magic becomes raw, shocking warfare here.

In the edited version, Red Cliff centers around two battles that take place on a massive scale. Woo does an exceptionally good job marshalling forces, explaining strategies, and showing the progress of fighting. Weapons, techniques, ruses have an immediacy and clarity often missing from the genre. Choreographed by veteran Corey Yuen, the action is pounding, relentless, astonishing. Special effects give Woo the opportunity to employ breathtaking crane shots that swoop over entire battlefields. His command of film technique and grammar is the equal of anyone working in the genre. And he has paid special attention to his actors, eliciting a marvelously nuanced performance from Zhang Fengyi as the nominal villain Cao Cao.

This is not the John Woo of The Killer or Mission: Impossible II, the master of pyrotechnics and male bonding. Fans looking for shootouts or martial-arts brawls may be disappointed with a story that probes so deeply into the thoughts and motives of its characters. Woo still adds many of his characteristic touches, in particular leaning on slow-motion cinematography and forced sentimentality. By discarding some of his excesses, the shorter version is much more in tune with American tastes. These few faults aside, Red Cliff is a rich, satisfying and thrilling film that stands up to the best Hollywood epics.