John Woo's Hollywood movies never quite captured the grace and gutsiness of his Hong Kong action films. Woo has brought a good dose of Hollywood scale and style to his first film shot in mainland China, though.
The U.S. release of "Red Cliff" suffers from the inevitable emasculation of a historical pageant chopped in half — it was cut down from a two-part, five-hour version for Asian audiences.
Yet what remains on screen is impressive — grand battles, dazzling action, sumptuous sets, magnificent panoramas. What's lost in the abbreviation is the emotional element as Woo chronicles an epic clash of warriors in the 3rd century.
Fine moments of humanity and heroism remain, particularly as the film builds to a colossal climax of hellish bloodshed. But at times, "Red Cliff" is a bit of a forced march, drama and context excised to keep the audience trudging along.
The film is at its clunkiest early on as terribly dry narration and some hasty action — sort of a Cliff's Notes beginning to "Red Cliff" — explain how power-mad Gen. Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) bullies the emperor into letting him mount a massive assault on a couple of pesky kingdoms that stand in his way.
Cao Cao easily defeats the forces of benevolent warlord Liu Bei (You Yong). On the run, Liu Bei's generals dispatch the wily Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to forge an alliance with Sun Quan (Chang Chen), leader of the Kingdom of East Wu.
Zhuge Liang sets out to win over Sun Quan's main man, Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, who starred in Woo's "A Bullet to the Head" and "Hard-Boiled").
Friendship seems fated between Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, who bond over conversation and music. A deal is struck and the kingdoms unite, then begin to train and strategize as the vastly superior forces of Cao Cao descend on Red Cliff, where Zhou Yu and his allies dig in to make their stand.
Until this point, the characters mostly have been stick figures, too numerous to display much individuality amid the convoluted politics and machinations that Woo crams into his opening act.
As showdowns with Cao Cao's armada and ground troops near, Woo lets the film amble about among his heroes, whose shared adversity quickly turns them from uneasy confederates to trusting comrades.
The heart of the film is the relationship between master strategist Zhou Yu and scientific sage Zhuge Liang. Perfectly cast as man of action and crafty savant, Leung and Kaneshiro build a rich spirit of warmth and respect around these two very different men.
Writer-director Woo adds a nice feminine touch to this manly tale, giving Zhou Yu's beautiful wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), a pivotal role in delaying Cao Cao's final barrage with a wonderfully orchestrated delaying tactic over a simple cup of tea.
Sun Quan's sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), also has a colorful part to play as a fierce warrior and masterful spy behind enemy lines.
The good guys' stratagems are a delight, particularly Zhuge Liang's clever trick to appropriate ammunition from Cao Cao's forces. The film also weaves in a ruthless act of germ warfare as Cao Cao uses a typhoid outbreak among his troops to his own advantage.
Grand as it is, the action can grow repetitive — once you've seen half a dozen impalings or immolations, you've kind of seen them all.
While Woo has a fitful record in Hollywood on such movies as "Mission: Impossible II," "Face/Off" and "Windtalkers," what he learned about scope is put to good use in "Red Cliff." A sequence where a dove — a favorite image for Woo — flies from Zhou Yu's base camp and swoops over Cao Cao's prodigious forces is simply majestic.