After fifteen years of Woo-light Hollywood action movies, one of Asia's biggest exports returned to China to take on The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. We've all ready seen countless movie interpretations, television dramas, novels and even video games, but it's Woo's take on events that grabbed our attention.
The two movies have been cut and re-edited for a western cinematic release, coming in at a mere 150 minutes. The original two-part release however (running at close to 300 minutes), having broken records in China by out grossing both Titanic and The Dark Knight, suggests that the birdman is back in business. The man who put the "P" in pigeon and the "D" in dove fills the screen with his favourite themes; brotherhood, honour and quite a lot of bird poop, I would imagine.
Tony Leung re-teams with Woo for the first time since 1992's Hard Boiled. Kaneshiro Takeshi (The Warlords), Chang Chen (The Go Master), Zhang Feng Yi (The Emperor and the Assassin), Vicki Zhao (Shaolin Soccer), Hu Jun (Infernal Affairs 2), Nakamura Shidou (Fearless), and Taiwanese model Lin Chi Ling make up the rest of the Scooby Gang.
Fearing that Liu Bei and the Kingdom of Shu cannot oppose Cao Cao; strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) proposes an alliance with the Kingdom of Wu. However, Wu ruler Sun Quan (Chang Chen) is uncertain about challenging Cao Cao so Zhuge Liang looks to persuade Sun Quan's chief strategist Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) before they bottle it. The two men form an instant bond (not in a gay way) and decide to battle Cao Cao at the water port of Red Cliff; the clue really is in the title.
Red Cliff opens with a big ass action sequence, and though the set pieces are well choreographed, they are not quite as spectacular as the size and scope of the movie would have you believe. The battles here, at least in the beginning, are of the one man against the world variety, and though they are very enjoyable, it does often feel as though Woo is saving the best for part two. Characters are given a chance to shine on the battlefield, even if it is surprisingly daft at times, but then, Woo has never really been known for subtlety.
Character development becomes the films focus from here on in and because of the huge cast list, some of the characters aren’t given as much time in the spotlight as others. Zhang Fengyi makes the biggest impression in the first half of the movie as the overly confident Cao Cao; so smug they named him twice. A spectacular closing sequence allows Woo’s greatest passion to take flight; performances fall into place and the slow build threatens to pay off. Part one is a bit of a tease then, in much the same way as The Two Towers was for LOTR fans, but not since Back To The Future’s ‘To be continued’ have I anticipated a second chapter as much as this.
Vicky Zhao has a worthwhile part to play in the second half, forming a relationship of sorts with one of her enemies. In fact, the ‘lesser’ characters have a greater involvement in the films denouement and Red Cliff benefits greatly as a result. Zhang Fengyi remains the film's most striking presence, and at times I forgot which side I was fighting for, such is the charisma of the man up front. It’s nice to see Takeshi Kaneshiro grow into his role as well, Leung is excellent of course but Takeshi proves to be the more formidable screen talent.
On the downside, Woo can’t quite escape the dafter side of his filmmaking prowess. Whether it is the growing relationship between Pit and Piggy or the final ‘I can’t believe he just did that’ sentimental fuck-fest, Woo seems intent on infusing emotional baggage with the rest of the carnage. But hey, by this point you should be too far-gone to care.
This is John Woo’s best film in years. Nothing he made in Hollywood comes close. Red Cliff would benefit from the occasional nip/tuck, one or two scenes do drift occasionally, slowing proceedings down to a crawl, but that's just nitpicking. Red Cliff remains a startling achievement. As for John, lets hope he stays in the East, because he sure love those birds, and when Red Cliff takes flight it truly soars… AW