John Woo built his reputation by creating visceral Hong Kong action films that made their Hollywood counterparts seem tame and old-fashioned. In Red Cliff he emulates epic historical dramas like Spartacus and once again reveals his mastery of cinematic storytelling, while raising the bar for…
large-scale battle scenes. (Or, as he put it, he’s replaced bullets with arrows.) True, he couldn’t achieve all of his ideas without the help of computer graphics, but with many hundreds of armored extras and huge set pieces it’s difficult to tell where reality ends and movie magic takes over. Suffice it to say that you’ve never seen battles quite like these before.
The story is a familiar one in Asia, but may cause some degree of confusion for Western audiences, at first. Simply put, the setting is China in the third century, where a power-mad general obtains the blessing of his emperor to mount an army that will crush two warlords who are intruding on the general’s domain. After a huge, bloody confrontation, one of those warlords realizes his only hope for survival is to align himself with his rival. That means convincing a canny war strategist, played by Tony Leung, that this is a good move.
Red Cliff moves at a brisk pace, alternating massive military maneuvers with intriguing, intimate scenes of characters forming alliances or playing cat-and-mouse. Yet it never feels like a history lesson; it pulses with life, even more so in the two-and-a-half hour version Woo prepared for Western audiences. (In Asia it’s a five-hour experience, split into two separate films.) Like any film of size and scope, this one is best experienced on a theater screen. I hope it doesn’t get lost amidst all the year-end product being shoved into multiplexes; it’s too good for that.