Red Cliff is 140 minutes of awesome — if your definition of awesome has room for heavy doses of combat theory and troop logistics. Masterful director John Woo turns to the third century Han Dynasty to give us a tale of underdogs uniting against an oppressive invader, and the result is equal part tactical exercises and charm.
Woo’s cast of underdog noblemen are the kind of good-hearted heroes you expect in your tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur. The camaraderie they establish prevents the film from becoming a tedious series of discussions about tactics, battle scenes, and review of the lessons learned. And while a film about military leaders in ancient China is, by nature, going to be heavy with male role, a few well-placed women augment the story without being cheap window dressing.
Woo’s action feels very real. There’s a little bit of martial arts excess, but in general the well-choreographed battle scenes eschew the fantasy tree-hopping of a kung fu flick, and also tone down the extravagant stylization Woo is justly famous for. The sets and scenery are marvelous, but, like the battles, feel more real than many recent excursions through Chinese history (such as Zhang Yimou’s wuxia wonders Hero, The House of Flying Daggers, or The Curse of the Golden Flower).
A great pleasure of the film is how much it feels like its own animal. By Hollywood standards, it’s too long, there’s too much talking about strategy, and most opportunities for sex appeal are underplayed (though, hey, not all of ‘em) — in essence, all opportunities to pander to illiterati are squandered. You’ve got a strong director with a great cast, a good budget and a solid script, just telling the damned story, not trying to out-guess the focus groups. If you see it for no other reason, see it for that.
The all-wise, all-seeing Wikipedia tells me that the movie is based on historical events. Apparently Woo loves history — the original cut, released last year in Asia and elsewhere, ran four hours. After watching two hours and 20 minutes roll by so enjoyably, I look forward to the full cut being released here.