Screenwriters: John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei
Running time: 148 mins
There's a gag in the Simpsons episode 'Half-Decent Proposal' where director John Woo gets ridiculed by, of all people, dimwitted Homer. When a former high school flame of Marge's plays Robert Redford and makes an 'indecent proposal', Homer is prepared to play along but with a few of his own caveats: "No hand holding, kissing, or misdirected woo... pretty much any John Woo movie." While the Simpson patriarch is clearly poking fun at the Mission: Impossible II-era Woo, he's probably never seen his earlier Hard Boiled or Blackjack, a demented Dolph Lundgren direct-to-TV vehicle about a hitman with a phobia of the colour white (the finale shoot-out takes place in a milk factory - jackpot!).
Red Cliff is Woo's first movie in his native China in more than 15 years, begging the question does this return to his roots coincide with a return to form? Based on the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD China, the historical epic tells of emperor Han Xiandi's manipulation by Prime Minister Cao Cao to start a war that will bring together the country's fractured states, with Cao's sinister ambition to take rulership of a united China for himself. The Xu and Wu Kingdom heads forge an alliance and, vastly outnumbered, they engage in bloody confrontations across land and sea involving millions of soldiers.
Much like Woo's previous work, Red Cliff makes brutal violence look gracefully balletic. In this period war film he's managed to temper the stylistic indulgences that Hollywood encouraged. The frame is packed for the sweeping battle scenes, and it's exhilarating as a spectacle to see sequences of such magnitude populated by real people (or very well-rendered CGI extras). Woo takes influence from Hero, and though his colour palette is never quite as vibrant, there's no denying that a rain of arrows face-off at sea owes a debt to Yimou Zhang's film. Red Cliff also maintains Woo's penchant for doves, with some irony here, as one is dispatched in a spectacular unbroken point-of-view shot across battlegrounds to retrieve a message from a spy behind enemy lines.
Woo tries to lend depth to his lavish visuals by injecting political undertones and an unconvincing romance. Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao never quite gel as a married couple, and they're not helped by clunky dialogue that only seems worse when read subtitled. "You wrapped me up like a rice ball," Leung sweet-talks after getting bandaged by his wife. The film also finds itself bogged down with protracted chatter about outdated battle formations and strategies. This thoughtful deliberation isn't really in Woo's skill set, though the clever 'tortoise' manoeuvre gives the endless Risk babbling a decent pay-off later.
At 148 minutes Red Cliff is undoubtedly too long, something that can easily be recognised when the mind wanders and begins to think about what's for lunch. Lose 20 minutes through careful editing, or split it into separate films (it was released in two instalments in Asian territories) and it'd be a much more fluent experience. Woo may slip back into bad habits at times, like with a comical musical jam that resembles an '80s music vid, but he has some audacity hanging his movie's entire outcome on a change in weather and tea-making methods. Homer Simpson would approve.
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