Directed by John Woo. Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Fengyi, Yong You, Chang Chen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chiling Lin, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Shidou Nakamura. (2009, R, 148 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 22, 2010
Hollywood has not served Hong Kong action auteur Woo well since his move to the U.S. for 1993's Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Hard Target. That was just one year after the director's maximum opus Hard-Boiled delivered on its promise to become the most exciting thing in the history of the British crown colony's wildly popular (and lucrative) cops vs. gangsters genre. Woo's stateside time has been less than bracing, with only 1997's Face/Off coming anywhere near the holy-shit-did-I-just-see-that?! bullet-riddled ballet of Woo's better yesterdays. No one, of course, has ever accused Woo of being unsentimental, either – raised a strict Catholic, virtually all of his films feature at least one shot of a covey of white doves flapping heavenward, and his cops and robbers are always closer at heart than either audience or character might think. Red Cliff, now the biggest box-office smash in Chinese history (sinking Titanic), is being buzzed as Woo's return to form, although it should be noted that what American audiences are seeing is a condensed version of Woo's original cut, down to slightly more than two-and-a-half hours from five. (Not so much, really, when you stop to consider that the 14th century novel the film is based on runs some 800,000 words.) In some respects it is a return to the ballistic ballets of Hong Kong-era Woo, only this time the projectiles are sheathed in quivers instead of shoulder holsters: Tens of thousands of arrows darken the sky as Woo's epic retelling of an ancient Chinese battle unfolds. So many are the tactical twists and strategy turns that shake the pillars of heaven throughout that I'm tempted to synopsize the whole thing as Dresden on the Yangtze and let you have at it, already. But the story, which involves the desire of the Han Dynasty's prime minister-turned-general Cao Cao (Zhang) to unite all of China, including the quarrelsome area run by the warlord Sun Quan (Chang, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) down south. Having already routed the army of provincial leader Liu Bei (Yong), the greedy if bloodily efficient Cao Cao heads south with 1 million men to stamp out the now-united, 30,000-plus armies of Sun and Liu. That's all you need to know about the labyrinthine plot structure of Red Cliff, but the true stars of the film are Liu Bei's uncannily successful military strategist, Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) and the tactics he devises for the southern insurgency. These include (but are not limited to) astute meteorological forecasting, clever use of a tortoise, and whip-smart flanking movements. (Cao Cao, for his part, devises an early version of biological warfare and clandestine psychological operations.) Leung turns up as a southern viceroy, and so do those doves – or carrier pigeons as the case may be – but the real reason to see this behemoth of a battle is its epic scale. You may have the biggest flat-screen DLP monitor in the city, but Red Cliff will never look half as spectacular as it will on the big – and I mean really big – screen.