After experiencing diminishing fortunes in Hollywood (the less said about Paycheck, the better), director John Woo returned to his native China to make Red Cliff, the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, and Woo’s first Chinese-language film since 1992. It was released in Asia in two parts totaling more than four hours, but the U.S. version is a single pared-down two-and-a-half-hour film. While that leads to occasional choppiness, especially in the first half-hour, it ultimately results in an exciting, often breathtaking historical epic with top-notch action.
Red Cliff tells the story of the famous Battle of Red Cliffs in third-century China, at which a ruthless warlord faced down the vastly outnumbered armies of two regional leaders attempting to hold onto their sovereignty. It’s a classic underdog story, and Woo doesn’t exactly push for subtlety or shades of gray in the telling of it. It’s always clear whom to root for—the heroes are two lieutenants (played by Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro) of the holdout leaders—but there’s immense satisfaction in seeing them triumph. Woo uses every yuan of his massive budget in staging spectacular battle sequences that combine his Hong Kong martial-arts-movie experience with the lessons in large-scale filmmaking he learned in Hollywood.
A lot of minor characters get lost in the shuffle, and the tacked-on English narration makes the beginning of the movie seem like a TV-show “Previously on …” recap. But once things kick into gear, this is one of the most exhilarating action movies of the year, and proof that Woo needed only the right story and support to deliver on his potential for massive blockbuster filmmaking.