Film Review: Red Cliff

Bottom line: A formidable prelude to an epic battle with resplendent effects and action spectacles.

Opened: July 10 (Asia)

HONG KONG -- As the first film to re-create the 208 A.D. Battle of Chibi, the most famous military feat in Chinese history, John Woo's "Red Cliff" is a Pan-Asian project with the word "monumental" written all over it. The 140-minute first half that opened across major Asian territories is only a prelude that provides the beams and columns for the narrative framework, but with a few decisive and spot-on action spectacles, it sufficiently kindles expectations for the climactic clash in upcoming Part 2. The Western version will be a shorter, condensed one.

Costing $80 million and years in the making, "Red Cliff" is the most expensive Chinese-language picture ever mounted. Its investors likely are to recoup most of it from the Asian market, where the story has infiltrated school curriculum, computer games and manga.

Although this is hailed as Woo's "homecoming" after his Hollywood tenure, hardcore disciples of his Hong Kong oeuvre will be straining hard to find the all-stops-out passion and sinewy machismo that ignited his bullet ballets such as "A Better Tomorrow" or "The Killer." Such signature themes as male bonding and David-and-Goliath face-offs still drive the action, but the functional script has dismantled much of the original story's dramatic intricacies and character complexities, then reassembled it into a easy-to-follow three-act structure.

The epic opens with ambitious Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) browbeating the emperor of Han into authorizing a campaign to crush his enemies, Liu Bei and Sun Quan (Chang Chen) in their southern strongholds. In the first big action scene, most reminiscent of Woo's earlier SFX-free brute heroics, Gen. Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) single-handedly battles whole armies to save Liu's infant son.

The middle act replaces action with character interaction, focusing on Liu's strategist Zhu-ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) persuasion of Sun Qun to ally with Liu and his elaborately built-up meeting with Sun's viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). The men's chemistry flickers but does not sparkle. Most of this section, notwithstanding a gratuitous sex scene plus some comic capers, lacks a gripping atmosphere. The modernized dialogue is accessible but lacks eloquence and gravity.

A change of tone and tempo at 105 minutes into the film brings a welcome catharsis with a 20-minute extended battle sequence that has the speed and grandeur of Akira Kurosawa's samurai classics. As the troops of Liu and Sun unite in a strategic formation against Cao's 200,000 cavalry assault, masterfully varied cinematography captures an astounding array of military pageantry, martial arts sequences and ancient weaponry that could be a war game geek's wet dream.

With an ensemble of key figures to introduce, the main roles physically look the part but still need to warm up to each other. The pivotal Zhu-ge and Zhou have been apocryphally depicted as rivals, but Woo's decision to follow history and turn them into potential soul mates weakens dramatic power. More of a romantic, melancholy heartthrob, Leung has the acting chops but not the physique or the commanding presence of a martial hero that would be the equivalent of Charlton Heston or Toshio Mifune.

Eschewing the ornate Orientalism of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Curse of the Golden Flower," production and costume designer Tim Yip goes for historical accuracy and creates a period look that is imperious and dignified.

China Film Group/Avex Entertainment/Chengtian Entertainment/CMC Entertainment/Showbox/Lion Rock Prods.
Cast: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Hou Yong, Hu Jun, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen; Director: John Woo; Screenwriters: John Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu; Producer: Terence Chang, John Woo; Executive producers: Han Sanping, Masato Matsuura, Wu Kebo, Ryuhei Chiba, Chin-wen Huang, Wootaek Kim, Jeongchun Ryu; Directors of photography: Lu Yue, Zhang Li; Production/costume designer: Tim Yip; Music: Taro Iwashiro; Editors: Angie Lam, Yang Hongyu, Robert A. Ferretti; Action director: Corey Yuen; Sales: Summit Entertainment, Mei Ah (Hong Kong).

No rating, 182 minutes.
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