Because it's set in 206 A.D., John Woo's Red Cliff does not include a scene of two men pointing guns at each other's heads in a wild moment of mutually assured destruction.
The climax of Woo's gripping epic does feature that trademark image - men trapped in a potentially lethal deadlock. But it's done with swords, rather than firearms. Some things never change.
After several unsatisfying years in Hollywood, Woo has returned to China to bring a piece of Chinese history to life. The battle of Red Cliff is apparently a much-storied event, an exercise in brilliant military tactics in which a small pair of armies outmaneuvered the horde of a tyrant with superior manpower and weapons.
Despite the sweep of the film (trimmed to 2½ hours from a two-part, five-hour Chinese version), Woo and his three cowriters keep the story intimate. There are, at center, only three or four principal characters, along with a dozen other ancillary figures that are fleshed out enough to be memorable.
The film boils down to a power grab by the prime minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Having eliminated all threats to the throne, Cao Cao decides to take preemptive action against two peaceful warlords to his south: Liu Bei and Sun Quan.
Though Liu Bei has a much smaller army, he is able to hold off Cao Cao long enough to protect refugees fleeing Cao Cao's marauders. But he and his army must retreat, before making the decision to ally themselves with Sun Quan.
The key figure, however, is not Liu Bei but his strategist: Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). After the new alliance, Zhuge finds himself working with his counterpart, Sun Quan's viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). The former opponents find themselves in harmony (literally and figuratively) in their approach to defeating Cao Cao, using Cao's arrogance against him.
Woo lays out huge battle scenes in dynamic and comprehensible ways, despite the fact that both sides wear remarkably similar-looking battlegear. Though Woo doesn't go to the lengths of Akira Kurosawa (who used color-coded battle flags to distinguish the sides in "Ran"), you never lose track of where you are in these scenes. And Woo leaves room in each battle for individual heroism and thrilling hand-to-hand combat.
There are several stirring set pieces, including a rope-a-dope encounter in the fog in which the forces commanded by Zhuge Liang trick the larger Cao Cao navy out of tens of thousands of arrows. The final half-hour - a fiery naval battle followed by a massive ground assaut - is thrilling filmmaking, shifting easily from a macro viewpoint to micro and back again, ending as you would hope, with a face-to-face encounter between the film's principal adversaries.
Leung brings a soulfulness to Zhou Yu that gives the film emotional depth. Takeshi Kaneshiro finds ways to convey the intelligence, wiles and heightened instincts of Zhuge Liang, while Zhang Fengyi plays the prime minister as a character of strength but also of dimension, rather than as a power-mad bully.
Red Cliff blazes across the screen with a sweep that most movies can only dream of. It's nice to see a master like Woo at the height of his powers, after slipping Hollywood's shackle.
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