John Woo is a fine director with an extraordinarily uneven filmography. His success seems to have a lot to do with the quality of his leading man. He came from Hong Kong to international prominence with Chow Yun-Fat as his muse (the Better Tomorrow trilogy; Hard-Boiled, rating: 77; The Killer, rating: 84), then came to America and quickly saw his reputation go downhill. He started off strong, with Hard Target (rating: 77) and a pair with John Travolta, Broken Arrow (rating: 80) and Face/Off (rating: 80), but lost his way once he made his way to second-rate action wannabes like Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck. A return to China, and a union with Tony Cheung, one of the greatest stars alive, was exactly what he needed. Red Cliff is his most ambitious movie yet (it's actually a two-part movie condensed to one film for American release), and it's also his best.
Leung plays the military leader Zhou Yu and stars opposite Takeshi Kaneshiro, a native of Taiwan who played the lead in House of Flying Daggers (rating: 79) who here plays the military strategist Kongming. Their effortless chemistry and charisma are indispensable as the movie's pace propels relentlessly forward, with two hours cut from the running time of the Chinese release. Woo's also brought Corey Yuen as a ringer, a veteran filmmaker (in Hollywood, he's made the Transporter series; in Hong Kong, he made a number of films with Jet Li, including Fong Sai Yuk, rating: 85) who here serves as second assistant director.
This clearly isn't a Hong Kong film, though. For one thing, the language is Mandarin, rather than the Cantonese of Woo and Yuen's early films. For another, the production values are massive: it's the most expensive film in Chinese history, with an $80 million budget. (That's still less than MI:2 and Windtalkers, both of which had a budget over $100 million, back in 2000 and 2002.) It's a historical epic, a prominent director deciding to make a Statement by making a cinematic record of part of his country's history.
It is a grand battle epic. The pace rarely pauses, but occasionally the main characters, good and evil, take a few sumptuous moments to indulge their mastery of calligraphy, poetry, or music -- the evil Cao Cao is a poet fond of declaiming verses to his men, while Zhou Yu and Kongming enjoy playing harp duets. They are warrior-poets, heroic archetypes. Kaneshiro's character Kongming (or Zhuge Liang in China) has nearly a magical command of strategy, from military tactics to weather prediction, like a Chinese Merlin.
In its unrelenting pace, it's like Black Hawk Down (rating: 79) in ancient Southern China rather than cramped Mogadishu; in its bloody, terrific battle scenes, it's like Braveheart (rating: 93). The battle scenes do not feel over-rushed: Woo's cinematography of killing has always been magisterial in its choreography and command, and here the battles are permitted to last, progress, endure, showing the changing formations from above and the heroes spilling blood from within. This is not in any way an antiwar movie. It is an exhilarating, delirious hagiography of some of its masters.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.