Review of John Woo's 'Red Cliff,' a stunning visual masterpiece

LORDS OF WAR: The battle sequences of a story in 3rd-century China demand to be seen on the big screen. The director's eye for military formation is astounding.
LORDS OF WAR: The battle sequences of a story in 3rd-century China demand to be seen on the big screen. The director's eye for military formation is astounding. (Magnolia Pictures/associated Press)
By John Anderson
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why is there so much violence in movies? Because it's bloody cinematic. Sure, two people talking in a car can warm the human heart. But 800,000 angry Chinese with bows and arrows charging across a soon-to-be-body-littered landscape fires up the whole cardiovascular system. And nobody brings the heat like John Woo.

The director, whose bullets-and-ballet aesthetic placed him at the pinnacle of Hong Kong action cinema in the late '80s and '90s, might be harboring a little anger of his own: During a 16-year tenure in Hollywood, he had to work with action stars of dubious talent like Christian Slater, Nicolas Cage and Jean-Claude Van Damme. And the movies he directed ("Face/Off," "Mission: Impossible II," "Windtalkers") made almost everyone forget who he was. However, with "Red Cliff," he returns with what is reputed to be the most expensive Asian film ever made and one that threatens to spill off the screen. There should be a law against seeing this thing anywhere but in a theater. It's a big ol' movie, the way "Lawrence of Arabia" was a big ol' movie.

Into each Chinese auteur's life, it seems, a feudal epic will eventually fall and this one is Woo's. Set in the 3rd century, "Red Cliff" is about the birth of a modern China, and the death of a classic era, a subject whose details are serpentine: Keeping track of who's who and what's what in "Red Cliff" is daunting at first, but it gets easier as the characters take form, something Woo manages to do fairly effortlessly while killing off millions of extras. In brief, the powerful Han Empire's scheming prime minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), has persuaded his feckless emperor to allow a southward campaign to crush the two troublesome warlords -- Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen) -- who stand in the way of a single China. In addition to his lust for power, Cao Cao has another motive -- his lust for Xiao Qiao (Chiling Ling), wife of Sun Quan's viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and the Helen of Troy of this epic, poetic, bloody romance.

Woo has always had a choreographer's soul, but his latest indicates that he might, in a past life, have been a military genius. While the characterizations are solid -- Takeshi Kaneshiro as Liu Bei's strategist/minister, Kongming, is perhaps the movie's most engaging figure -- the battles are what really make "Red Cliff." Woo may not have invented the tortoise formation, a series of concentric semicircles formed by the bracing rebel army, and into which Cao Cao's cavalry rides to its doom, but the way it is shot is literally fantastic. And the enormous conflagration that provides the movie's crescendo has an almost joyous scope.

"Red Cliff" is a dichotomous beast: The computer-generated imagery that makes so much of it possible is served up in heaping, state-of-the-art portions, but the results occasionally border on the cartoonish. At the same time, "Red Cliff" is a classic tale that gets a classicist's treatment: The movie's grander sequences each involve the elements of air, water, earth and fire, while the chief personalities involve the classic humors: the phlegmatic Kongming is the intellectual, Zhou Yu is the full-blooded romantic, the furious Gan Xing played by Shido Nakamura is biliously angry and Cao Cao is melancholic. Together, they might compose one balanced Chinese individual or, by extension, a nation. So it's an optimistic movie, for all its pyrotechnics, acrobatics and histrionics. And it's a triumphant return for Woo, who can still show the fantasy/action boys how it's done.

Anderson is a freelance reviewer.

*** 1/2

Red Cliff

(148 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for sequences of epic warfare.

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