John Woo's 'Red Cliff': An Epic Cut Down To Size

W: Fengyi Zhang in 'Red Cliff'

Hard Target: Zhang Fengyi plays the martially inclined prime minister Cao Cao in a battle epic that makes Zack Snyder's 300 look unambitious — and that lets some character-building get lost amid the sweep of history. Magnet Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Magnet Releasing

Red Cliff

  • Director: John Woo
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 148 minutes

Rated R: Bloody violence, mild sexuality

With: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Shido Nakamura

In Mandarin with English subtitles

After a frustrating second career in Hollywood, director John Woo has gone back to China — way back. His Red Cliff is a battle epic based on a war fought 18 centuries ago.

When he worked in Hong Kong's stylistically promiscuous movie industry, Woo did it all, from costume pictures to romantic comedies. But he's best known for his gangster movies, and for good reason: Films like The Killer and Hard Boiled balanced the director's more florid tendencies with street-level realism.

Red Cliff feels less urgent and authentic than those movies, and not just because its spurting blood is clearly computer-generated. While not as extravagantly art-directed as Zhang Yimou's Hero or House of Flying Daggers, Woo's movie is too tidy to evoke combat's mud, gore and terror.

An even bigger difficulty is that the film is more interested in military tactics than character development. There's little psychological strife, just clanging swords and clashing ships.

In Woo's defense, the U.S. version of Red Cliff may be sketchy because it's cut been by half. Released in two parts in Asia, the movie lost roughly two hours on its way to American screens. What remains is a cast-of-thousands saga that concentrates on just four people.

The Han Empire's unsavory prime minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), has designs on two smaller kingdoms. He sends an armada down the Yangtze to attack the rulers of those lands, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, who play minor roles in the story. The crucial alliance against Cao Cao is between the two leaders' strategists, Zhuge Liang (Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Yu (Hard Boiled co-star Tony Leung).

The fourth character of note is Zhou's wife, beautiful Xiao Ciao (fashion model Chiling Lin). Cao Cao has long coveted Xiao, so she's the logical person to distract the invader as Zhuge and Zhou prepare their final counterattack.

Although the heroes wield swords rather than pistols, Woo employs many of his mobster-flick trademarks, including doves (representing heavenly peace amid earthly carnage) and slow-motion action scenes. The director also retains his taste for comically intense male bonding, although Zhuge and Zhou achieve rapport not in battle but during a zither duet.

A scene from 'Red Cliff' i

Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) is one of two rebel generals who form an alliance against Cao Cao, hoping to thwart the prime minister's designs on two neighboring kingdoms. Magnet Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Magnet Releasing
A scene from 'Red Cliff'

Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) is one of two rebel generals who form an alliance against Cao Cao, hoping to thwart the prime minister's designs on two neighboring kingdoms.

Magnet Releasing

Synergy attained, the two men begin plotting the movie's two major engagements. In the first, the defenders use "the tortoise formation" to repel and then trap Cao Cao's superior forces. The second showdown involves ships, fire and a timely shift in the wind. (Zhuge turns out to be one heck of a weather forecaster.)

Whenever there's a break in the fighting, the movie's major characters become detached and artistic. Cao Cao recites poetry about life's transience, Xiao does calligraphy — she's seen writing the character for "serenity" — and Zhuge and Zhou play their zithers. One crucial sequence even turns on the tea ceremony.

Reportedly the most expensive Chinese-language movie ever, Red Cliff impresses with its sweep, scale and precision. It's like a real-world chess game, with pawns who never seem fully alive, even when they bleed copiously.

Life was cheap in Woo's gangster movies, too, but those films had a moral dimension this one lacks. Red Cliff is big enough to be entertaining, but not deep enough to be moving.

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