Violent, vast, hard on the arse, Red Cliff yanks John Woo back from the career precipice of 2003’s Paycheck, the last (and least) of his Hollywood forays.
The Asian auteur’s first native venture in over a decade and a half, it’s no cap-in-hand homecoming; rather, the priciest Chinese-language picture ever, tackling an oft-retold (novels, comics, videogames) chunk of military history.
Amping the pressure further, Woo wades into an arena thronged with super-sized, CGI-assisted spat-taculars, from Two Towers to Golden Flower. Do we really need another set-to involving zillions of zinging arrows?
Yeah, we do. Woo takes all the tropes – armadas, ant-like extras and yes, arrows – and showers them with fresh blood. The action is stylised to the nth degree, without caving to shopworn floaty-fu or sheeny pixel-perfectionism. It’s hyper and real.
Flaming long, too – albeit not as long as the original two-part, five-hour Chinese cut. Concertinaed into a relatively rangy 150 minutes, the story (rebel kingdoms unite against an aggressively ambitious Prime Minister, circa 208 AD) can’t help but seem like a skipping record at times.
Whether it’s the ruthlessness of the edit or a glitch in the script, the epic outweighs the intimate here. Save for a soft-centred epilogue, the starchy chemistry between Tony Leung’s viceroy and tactician Takeshi Kaneshiro means this isn’t a vintage workout for Woo’s male-friendship fetish.
But screw the bromance; Red Cliff is a monument to brawling, not bonding. It’s also a strapping ode to giant-scale filmmaking, its widescreen wonders staged by land (horseback battle, fortress siege, soccer match), by sea (a 1,000-strong fleet of ships on fire) and by air (the camera taking extended flight on the wings of a dove – sorry, pigeon – over the entire human chessboard). And the arrows? Part of a fiendishly sly fake-out devised to nick the enemy’s ammunition. Big and clever.
Woo aimed for “an Asian Troy”, but any similarities to Wolfgang Petersen’s schlockbuster are purely coincidental – this is a sweeping, stirring breath-snatcher that finds the director on his finest form since Face/Off. Even half-cut, it’s a whole lot of epic.