John Woo’s historic war epic is slightly more subdued than the films that made him famous — no double-wielding pistols in China’s second-century Han Dynasty, and only one freaking dove — but you won’t confuse him for the comparatively contemplative Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), either. Cut from its original four-plus hours — in China, the movie is split into two feature-length films — Red Cliff feels abbreviated at two-and-a-half hours, relying on voice-over exposition to fill in Westerners ignorant of Chinese history. Here’s the gist for those of you typical Americans too self-centered to have learned anything about the heritage of another culture: Bad dude Cao Cao (Fengyi) intimidates figurehead Emperor Xian (Wang Ning) into declaring war on two nicer-seeming guys from the south, Liu Bei (Yao Yung) and Sun Quan (Chen), who are sort of like emperors only not, I guess (they’ve got similar hats), with smaller armies and resources than Cao Cao, who claims to command an 800,000 man navy.
In other words, if you slept through Chinese history class, Red Cliff probably won’t help you pass the final, but the classic war-movie setup — two noble commanders form an alliance to battle some a-hole with superior firepower — is pretty universal. The themes in Red Cliff, in fact, might be a little too classic for modern sensibilities. The deaths of a few minor good guys, a nasty typhoid outbreak, and a half-hearted antiwar message in the film’s final act do little to counteract the previous two-plus hours Woo spends making organized mass murder look like the most badass awesomefest ever invented by man. As expected, Woo’s more comfortable in battle, removed from the emotions of his characters, who mainly operate as machines of stylized death, speaking in matter-of-fact dialog about their feelings and fears as a way to refuel between slow-motion bloodshedding.
War, as Woo depicts it here, is a combination of chess-like strategic deliberation, and feats of superhuman slaughter. Everything from troop formation to wind direction is considered and debated before battle, but the fighting itself consists of savage one-on-one showdowns, and massive improvised explosions. For its mixing of fact with legend in a war supposedly fought for love, Red Cliff’s closest modern American counterpart is probably Troy, but watching Red Cliff’s creative death-dealing is infinitely more satisfying than Brad Pitt flipping his Fabio hair. Blockbuster directors take a note from Woo: The most effective way to glorify violence is to make it look really meaningful and pretty. Leave your hippie hat at home, Moonbeam, and you’ll probably have a good time. — Jeremy Martin