Red Cliff II -- Film Review

Bottom line: Colossal production turns history into legend by splashing out on spectacle and entertainment.

Related: Film Review: Red Cliff

HONG KONG -- "Red Cliff I," the first part of the screen adaptation of China's famous "Three Kingdoms" warring history, was a hefty build-up that left audiences dangling at the precipice of a legendary naval battle. The multinational production resources utilized for this cinematic recreation are unprecedented in Asia, but it is director John Woo's level-headed ordering of narrative sequence, his skill in devising kinetic live-action to off-set technical ostentation and his vision of how to turn epic into entertainment that propels "Red Cliff II" to a thundering climax.

Part I reaped a whopping $120.7 million-plus from combined boxoffices of 10 Asian territories, with Japan at over $52 million to date. Part II can easily soar on the crest of this success to record highs in Asian theaters.

"Red Cliff II" opens with a brisk recap of Part I, in which prime minister Cao Cao's first campaign to annex the fiefdom of East Wu was thwarted by an allied defensive led by Wu viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the military strategist who serves Cao's opponent Liu Bei. With Cao's 2,000-strong fleet poised to sail down the Yangtze for a second offensive, Zhuge uses his knowledge of weather changes to help Zhou decimate Cao's fleet in one blast.

Even at 141 minutes, the film never feels ponderous or weighed down by self-importance. From the moment the film opens with a Chinese soccer game that whips up a whirlwind sense of movement, Woo keeps the ball rolling with an intriguing lead-up that includes a reconnaissance mission by Wu princess Shangxiang, double agents and double-crosses in both camps and bluffs and counter-bluffs between Zhuge, Zhou and Cao. Tight editing keeps the frequent scene changes under control and the intricate stratagems comprehensible.

A timely lull comes at the 90-minute mark as Zhou's wife Xiaoqiao (Lin Chiling) literally brews up a storm in a teacup in her seduction of Cao. Though the two only sip tea, they generate more erotic vibes than the clumsily shot sex scene between Zhou and Xiaoqiao in Part I.

The climactic battle lives up to popular expectations of epic filmmaking, with over 30 minutes of sophisticated military maneuvers, special effects and human drama in one continuous movement. The wooden galleys are magnificently constructed. Visceral explosions and close-ups of human carnage, combined with a few well-placed panoramic CGI shots of the fire's domino effect on the connected fleet comes close to "Titanic" in achieving a sense of catastrophic grandeur. Visual effects on the whole by the Orphanage and several other VFX creators are convincing. In the naval scenes, effects by Frantic Films VFX have a painterly texture that adds a dreamy air to the hardcore stunts and pyrotechnics.

The maritime spectacle segues smoothly onto land as Wu forces storm Cao's fort. Corey Yuen's action choreography maintains a strong martial arts element that gives the main protagonists some individual play among stampedes of extras. The characters' function is merely emblematic in these scenes, from which Shidou Nakamura's stoic General Gan and Hu Jun's agile Zhao Zilong stand out most in manly prowess. Tony Leung, who lands the most crucial role as commander, goes through the paces with few stirring emotional responses. Takeshi Kaneshiro, blessed with less demanding dialogue than in Part I, charms with Mona Lisa smiles.

Part II gains dramatic weight as Cao Cao steps up as a dominant force and the film's most subtly drawn character. Zhang Fengyi ("Farewell My Concubine") is the film's best casting choice. Zhang's Cao radiates intelligence and is ever so urbane but remains unfathomable behind his composure. He epitomizes the charismatic Machiavellian prince when he boosts morale of his homesick troops with eloquent rhetoric, yet ruthlessly decides he'll let his last soldier die "to put on a show of military might."

Notwithstanding perfunctory laments about the sacrifice of rank-and-file, the whole saga is a glorification of medieval chivalry and individualistic heroism. However, John Woo distinguishes his magnum opus from Hollywood blockbusters by putting his auteur's stamp in the final stand-off between Cao and Zhou, with a pose that references all the classic face-offs in his "hero" films.

Opened: Thursday, Jan. 15 (Hong Kong)
Production: China Film Group, Avex Entertainment, Chengtian Entertainment, CMC Entertainment, Showbox present a Lion Rock production
Cast: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Lin Chiling, Chang Chen, Vicky Zhao, Hu Jun, Shidou Nakamura
Director: John Woo
Screenwriters: John Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu
Executive producers: Han Sanping, Masato Matsuura, Wu Kebo, Ryuhei Chiba, Chin-wen Huang, Wootaek Kim, Jeonghun Ryu
Producers: Terence Chang, John Woo
Directors of photography: Lu Yue, Zhang Li
Production, costume designer: Tim Yip
Music: Taro Iwashiro
Editors: Angie Lam, Yang Hongyu, Robert A. Ferretti
Sales: Summit Entertainment
No rating, 141 minutes