The trailer for the Chinese period piece war epic Red Cliff trumpets it as the new film from "legendary director John Woo." Even as a fan of Mr. Woo's work, that's a pretty bold statement. The man has made some extraordinarily entertaining films and certainly put his personal stamp on the action genre, but "legendary" seems like a bit of carnival barking. It makes sense as a marketing gimmick, because Red Cliff is John Woo's shameless, aggressive and, at times, exhilarating attempt to achieve that icon status.
The film takes place during the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. Not being a scholar in said subject, I'm aware of nothing much outside of it basically occurring between the Han and Jin dynasties. If you, too, aren't much of a Chinese history scholar, the American cut of Red Cliff certainly isn't going to help make things much clearer. Basically there are three main kingdoms to rise out of the ashes of the Han dynasty: the Wei, Wu, and Shu. The Wei were to the North, and were by far the most powerful. Led by Chancellor Cao Cao, the Wei began to conquer surrounding territories in an attempt to re-unify China. The Wu and Shu, too small to resist on their own, drew together for an epic showdown with the Wei at the Red Cliffs, a stronghold of the Shu.
Originally Red Cliff was two films, nearly doubling the running time of the American version. Seeing as how this is a John Woo movie being sold to American audiences, what would you guess got cut out — the character work and quieter scenes which explicate the motivations and dynamics of the struggle, or the gigantic, kick-ass battle scenes? Honestly, I suppose I can't say what got cut out as I haven't seen the original version, but in the version screening at my local cinema I certainly got to see a whole lot of violence and mayhem but can only tell you the vaguest whiffs of what all of that may have meant.
Which is not to say that the American version of Red Cliff is a lost cause, or simply a dumb actioner. If anything, it is shaven down to become a showcase for what makes Mr. Woo an extraordinarily adept filmmaker. Mr. Woo has been labeled a purveyor of "operatic violence," which, if taken as a compliment at all, can be seen as somewhat backhanded. Frequently violence in a movie is used the same way spices are dumped onto a crummy piece of meat – it diverts your attention from how unsatisfying and empty the meal is.
To extend the metaphor nonsensically far past its breaking point, Mr. Woo is more akin to a superb confectioner. What he's making may not exactly be nutritious, but it is created with artistry and understanding, and can deliver a great degree of pleasure. With this film Mr. Woo puts to shame many of the other recent films that have attempted to overwhelm their audiences with massive CGI battles and quick-cut action scenes. As awe-inspiring as those can be, eventually they become dull and repetitive: big crowds, lots of swords, lots of arrows, a couple variations thrown in (catapults, boats, a woolly mammoth), it all ends up being a bunch of things smashing into each other. While watching Red Cliff I found myself constantly surprised at how ingenious the action was, both through the plot and the directing.
In what I found to be the bravura scene of the movie, the grossly outnumbered Wu and Shu deliver a crushing defeat to the Wei using a strategy known as The Eight Trigrams Formation, which involves the technique "The Turtle," in which the soldiers band together and cover themselves with shields to become impenetrable, and which also allow multiple such "turtles" to collapse in on themselves, thereby trapping the enemy. The sequence is stunning, as Mr. Woo withholds the workings of the formation from the audience, so we experience the effects of formation at the same time as the unfortunate Wei forces who fall into the trap. It becomes like a horror funhouse, with new tricks, traps, and characters popping out of the various shells, creating havoc and wonderment at how beautifully realized it all is. There is also plenty of big, sweeping epic action to shock and awe the movie-goer looking for such treats, but even in these moments Mr. Woo has found ways in which to defy expectation. There is, for instance, a spin on the "cloud of arrows" scene that has become de rigueur in these films that is quite clever. I imagine Mr. Woo sees at least a little of himself in the heroes of this film, military strategists who plan and execute massive, ornate scenes of brutality in beautiful, aesthetic patterns and movements.
Outside of the action, the movie is a serviceable, old school war epic. There is honor versus dishonor, alliances are forged, motives are questioned, tested, and then solidified, there is even a romance, although atypically between an already married couple. There is the calm warrior, the firebrand, the sly, witty strategist, the old soldier. Mr. Woo divests heavily into archetypes which rumor has it are more fleshed out in the two-film version, but within the cut as I saw they accomplish what is needed of them. They are men (and women) in service of something much larger than themselves, and as a director who has continually sought to make something grander, more epic, and more exciting than what he had previously imagined, it may be fair to say that this is what Mr. Woo finds most worthwhile about them.
He also, perhaps, sees something worthwhile in his heroes' underdog status. After making his big splash stateside with Jean Claude Van-Damme's Hard Target and becoming a household name through the double-whammy of Broken Arrow and Face/Off, he'd recently come upon hard times. Windtalkers, his previous attempt at a giant war epic (although it was WWII in that case) and the Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck were both disappointments. And so for the first time in close to two decades he has retreated to China, strengthened his forces, and unleashed a work of great vigor, excitement, and his own particular breed of artistry. Legendary? Perhaps not quite yet, Mr. Woo, but Red Cliff is certainly a step in the right direction.