From international action auteur (breakout hit "Hard Boiled") to Hollywood hack (2003's widely panned "Paycheck"), John Woo's career has ridden a critical rollercoaster. "Now he’s back, in two senses: back making movies in Asia and back in theaters with 'Red Cliff,' a nearly two-and-a-half-hour historical epic set in the third century A.D. that reunites him with Tony Leung, one of the stars of 'Hard Boiled,'" writes Mike Hale in the New York Times. "It would be nice to report that he’s also back on top of his game, but 'Red Cliff,' while handsome and intelligent and perfectly easy to sit through, never really approaches the visceral tug of Mr. Woo’s Hong Kong hits." The film opens in the US this Friday.
"Woo returned to China—the Mainland—to make his latest film, but scale back he didn't," notes Scott Foundas in the Village Voice. "Conceived as a two-film epic with a combined running time of nearly five hours (reduced to a single two-and-a-half-hour version for extra-Asian consumption), Woo's 'Red Cliff' is the most expensive movie ever produced in the country, and also the biggest—a third-century battle royale, with phalanxes of horsemen and armadas of battleships stretching as far as the eye can see (and, thanks to the CGI paintbox, even farther). The source material is an 800,000-word historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century and as deeply embedded in Chinese folklore as Shakespeare's characters are in the West—rooted in fact, but transfigured over time into something more mythic. And although Woo also turned to the more historically accurate text Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms for inspiration, watching 'Red Cliff' feels like being in the presence of gods who have momentarily deigned to walk upon the earth."
"Something of a Chinese 'Iliad,' the Red Cliff tale has enough honor and deceit, camaraderie and cavaliering for a cast of thousands," observes Leo Goldsmith at Reverse Shot. "Nonetheless, while it’s not the 'return to form' the auteuristic PR narrative would have us believe, 'Red Cliff' has its share of Peter Jacksonian thrills and conveys complex maneuvers, stratagems, and double- and triple-crosses clearly and efficiently."
Time Out's Joshua Rothkopf: "For all his brilliance with choreography, Woo is flummoxed by the thousands of actual human extras, though there’s no denying his commitment to the finer points of battle tactics (yawn). A dove flies high above the war zone; once upon a time, Woo knew how to get a shiver out of such signature spastic flapping. Here, it’s strictly business."
Meanwhile, at IFC's Indie Eye blog, Vadim Rizov mounts a "defense of John Woo's American period," (including "Mission: Impossible II" and "Paycheck") noting that "it's possible to take equal amounts of pleasure in Woo's cheeseball notions as in his considerable prowess in organizing on-screen violence; they're just different kinds of pleasure, which is why I enjoy the war scenes just as much as I enjoy a big fake shot of a CGI dove flying endlessly over battlefields."
Over at the Auteurs Notebook, Glenn Kenny compares the Chinese DVD import of the original 5-hour "Red Cliff" with the version being released in US theaters, which was cut in half, concluding that "the two-part version of the film is, to my mind, preferable, warts and all, because of its genuine sweep, and the very real passion that imbues every minute of the filmmaking."
Stephen Garrett has an interview with Woo in Time Out New York in which the director professes his hopes to one day direct an "action musical." Collider has a video interview with Woo about "Red Cliff" and his next project, "Flying Tigers."
Watch the trailer for "Red Cliff" on YouTube.