Everyone loves an underdog story. From The Bad News Bears to perhaps a more suitable comparison, Braveheart, people love seeing the little guy pull through against all odds. At its heart, John Woo's Red Cliff is an underdog story set in the war theatre of ancient China, and it delivers all the fist-pumping you would hope for a film of the genre. For Woo—a director known for delivering action experiences like Hard Boiled and The Killer—Red Cliff is a delightful change of pace, and it is made perfectly clear Woo is very much at home trading guns for swords.
Loosely based on the 600 year-old text Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff is set in 208 AD China. Cunning prime minister Cao Cao has convinced malleable Emperor Han that the best approach to uniting China is to ferret out those in the south who would oppose his rule, and a formidable force of 700,000 soldiers journeys south to defeat the peaceful tribes. But the heads of the southern territories refuse to surrender their lands, and instead unite their meager forces against Cao Cao's daunting army.
In China, the story unfolds across two separate film releases, but the US version is condensed into one film and the approach is immediately apparent. A narrator breaks down the set-up—his "Moviefone guy" voice sounding out of place—and the main characters are introduced quickly, almost in passing on the way to battle. I understand why the film was condensed—interest in "The Three Kingdoms" might not be the immense draw it is in China—and I expected some confusion knowing that hours of footage were cut. But my initial displacement disappeared quickly, and I was caught up by the first real battle. I don't know what's missing from the US version, but I understood what was happening and—after all—western audiences are mainly there for the battle scenes, right?
The battle scenes are impressive. Woo knows how to film an action scene, guns or otherwise. Working on such a grand scale, the director keeps the battles in perspective by following the major players and, in a pleasant turn, scenes are not filmed in the frenetic, up-close style that has become all the rage following Paul Greengrass' Bourne films. Rather the action is often slowed down, sometimes to slow-mo, to punctuate the impossible wire-fu feats that some of these warriors employ. The film's second half is a symphony of war-related delights and the detail in the set-design is fantastic to see before it's blown up. And yes, there are doves! Plenty of doves!
If the battle scenes are not impetus enough for your viewing, you might come away disappointed in Red Cliff. Moments off the battlefield are posed as a grand game of Risk, the two sides planning their attacks, consulting subtle changes of the wind and expounding on the philosophies of a good cup of tea. For war enthusiasts the concentration on strategy might be captivating, but focusing on the intricacies of tactical maneuvers leaves little time for character development, and many motivations rely on the machinations of archetype over true sentiment. In stunting its emotional territory, Red Cliff feels mostly familiar despite introducing Western audiences to a classic Chinese story.
Nonetheless, I was never bored, and for a 2½ hour war movie, I think that's enough of a recommendation.
Cross-published on Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.