Woo’s right at home in shortened epic tale
The very epicness of John Woo’s “Red Cliff’’ is an entertainment. It’s a siege picture set in ancient China, and it’s old-fashioned and newfangled at the same time. Most of the shots look either touched up or entirely artificial, and Woo wants us to laugh at the overripe flourishes. At some point, a zillion digitized arrows sail through the sky and into a fleet of ships. After the attack, two men stand and talk, without much fanfare, on the back of a straw boat that now looks like an enormous porcupine.
The movie is set near the end of the Han Dynasty, in the third century, when the empire had been busted up into regions ruled by warlords. The leader of the Imperial Army, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), is merciless in his determination to reunify and rule the territories. First he wants to destroy unyielding southern defectors, led by Liu Bei (You Yong), Sun Quan (Chang Chen), and Sun’s chief military strategist, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). In turn, Liu and Sun join forces to vanquish Cao Cao and his 850,000 men.
It’s perfectly obvious where all this is headed (the Battle of Red Cliffs) since, from the grand standoff of the opening sequence, it seems we’ve already arrived. Yet the fighting never stops: flaming arrows, blinding shields, catapulted fireballs. In his downtime, Zhou rehearses the choreography of battle as if he were practicing for a spot with the Twyla Tharp dancers. His violent strumming of the guqin is even further over the top. Nonetheless, all the male leads are swashbuckling and easy on the eyes - Leung and Nakamura Shido, who plays one of Zhou’s top commanders, are particularly sexy.
Woo (“Mission Impossible II’’) was raised in Hong Kong, and “Red Cliff’’ is the first Asian film he’s made since Hollywood lured him away in the early 1990s. A great, big mytho-historical number is probably the best way to return to the national fold. His bag of visual tricks certainly hasn’t changed. Half the movie happens in slow motion. Horses, in fact, are made to gallop at such a reduced speed that they, somehow, approximate gushing water. Swords spin toward chests. Blood splashes. The camera soars into close-ups, leaps about 100 feet heavenward, and sails over an armada. And, Woo fans, don’t despair: The trademark dove takes wing.
The director’s command of his camera in relation to the human body is still hard to beat. He orchestrates crisp, rhythmic showdowns that, even when they verge on over-editing, have a navigable chaos. But truth be told, “Red Cliff’’ feels laborious. It’s almost 2 1/2 hours, and too much is corny, cramped, and vague. (Taro Iwashiro’s nonstop score sounds oddly like the music for NBC’s Olympics broadcasts.) Some of the trouble is that, for the better part of an hour “Red Cliff’’ is a blur of names, faces, and facts. There’s a reason for the whirring confusion: The film was meant to be more than four hours long.
In China, where it played in two parts, the movie managed to unseat “Titanic’’ as the biggest box office hit of all time. There these characters are mythological, but an unfamiliar audience needs more ballast than the impressionistic parade of scenes that flies by. Even at 148 minutes (and viewed twice!), you still feel as if you’re watching the longest coming attraction ever for a John Woo movie.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review misstated the century in which the film is set.