by Jeff Meyers
Long gone are the days where King Vidor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz or Cecil B. DeMille boasted of movies with "a cast of thousands." Leave it to China to step in where Hollywood fears (and can no longer afford) to tread.
Using dirt-cheap labor, repatriated director John Woo outfits 10,000 actor-extras in ancient weaponry for Red Cliff, the most expensive Chinese-language movie ever produced. Of course, by Hollywood blockbuster standards, its $80-million budget is chump change, but in today's global economy, Woo gets to work his hyperkinetic magic on a truly epic-sized canvas. Magnificent battle sequences, astonishing hand-to-hand combat scenarios, masculine psychology, and virtuous heroes facing impossible odds are all part of his operatic mix. The sheer size, scope and splendor of his war-epic is breathtaking to behold; channeling the spirit of Akira Kurosawa in story and grandeur. In fact, everything in the movie is so big, it only makes sense that it takes nearly five hours (split into two films) to tell its 300 meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon storyline.
Set in 208 A.D., during the end of the Han Dynasty, Red Cliff opens with the ruthless general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) browbeating the emperor into letting him march an army of 800,000 men into the peaceable southern kingdoms on the false charge of insurrection. After defeating the noble warlord Liu Bei (You Yong) and turning his people into refugees, he sets his sights on the neighboring kingdom Red Cliff. But Bei's crafty military strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro from House of Flying Daggers) has brokered an alliance with Red Cliff's noble general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung from Lust/Caution and Hero), setting the stage for a David versus Goliath showdown. Shifting allegiances, miraculous reversals of fortunes, a tense spy mission and superhuman skirmishes all set up the great and final nighttime naval battle.
Beloved for his early Hong Kong action films, Woo spent the last decade and a half stateside, making such Hollywood films as Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Paycheck, and slowly became a parody of himself. Red Cliff is his return to form — both good and bad.
While this Chinese version of the Trojan War delivers the full impact of legendary storytelling, like you're watching history before it became mythology, it also suffers from the director's trademark fetishes. There are endless platitudes about honor, beautiful but sad women who unerringly support their warrior men, Chinese music video moments, and, yes, even those annoying doves of peace. A centerpiece moment demonstrates the unfortunate yin and yang of Woo's filmmaking style: A blatantly CGI-created dove flies across the Yangtze River, from Red Cliff to Cao Cao's enemy encampment, revealing the immense size of his army and armada. The sequence is simultaneously cheesy and jaw-dropping.
Despite these flaws, Woo's virtues as a filmmaker win the day. His pace is swift, his cast is superb and his visuals are nothing short of astounding. From the watercolor beauty of the landscapes to the incredible battlefield strategies (the tortoise formation!) choreographed and shot like a miles-long Busby Berkeley of violence and destruction. Red Cliff matches The Lord of the Rings in both scale and ambition. And though its epic running time (271 minutes) may test the limits of your bladder, it's worth nearly every minute. —Jeff Meyers
Note: There is an abridged 2-1/2-hour version of the film (complete with English-language narration) that features most of Woo's incredible battlefield scenes but suffers from gaping holes where the backstories used to be. It should be the viewing choice of last resort.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 15-16 and Jan. 22-23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17 and Jan. 24.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.