Running time 148 minutes
Written by John Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu
Directed by John Woo
Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Fengyi, You Yong, Chang Chen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chiling Lin
Red Cliff is two and a half hours long and in Chinese. These facts may be off-putting, but don’t be deterred: Red Cliff is, in fact, an action-packed epic so large in scale that it makes Braveheart seem unambitious.
Director John Woo spent the first part of his career in Hong Kong, making action films like The Killer, Hard-Boiled and Bullet in the Head (great title!). He then went to Hollywood, and made movies like Broken Arrow and Face/Off and even teamed up with The Cruise for Mission: Impossible II. Red Cliff marks Mr. Woo’s return to his native country, and though the film is set in 208 A.D China, it’s a thoroughly Hollywood blockbuster, in Chinese.
The legendary Battle of Red Cliff is laid out concisely for those of us unfamiliar with it: Prime minister–turned–general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) gets permission from the Han dynasty emperor to wage war against Southern China’s allied rebel warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). It’s a classic David-and-Goliath–type scenario, a seemingly invincible and massive army (bad guys) against the small but honorable one (good guys).
Mixed up in all of this is the viceroy, Zhou Yu (the always great Tony Leung), who is being courted for the rebel side—and whose wife (Chiling Lin) is one of the secret reasons Cao Cao wants to conquer the south so badly. Still with me? After establishing the basics, the movie settles down into its most interesting subject: strategy! Each camp tries to outthink each other, with maneuvers and formations with fun names like the “goose” and “tortoise.” The battle scenes are intensely choreographed, with acrobatic fighting that is happily less gory than it is complicated.
Interestingly enough, the film also demonstrates how more peaceful activities—such as the tea ceremony—are as important to victory as swordplay. The dialogue, perhaps due to the translation, can be a little clunky (“Swift as wind/ Firm like mountain”), but the lush cinematography and elegance of the fight scenes more than make up for it. Mr. Woo originally created two versions of the film: a two-part, five-hour version for Asian audiences, and this more abridged one for Westerners. It’s hard to know what we’re missing from the extended cut, but this Red Cliff feels awfully complete to me.