Originally released as two features totaling five hours (à la Kill Bill) but edited down to one two-and-a-half-hour movie for non-Asian release, the Chinese historical war epic Red Cliff is director John Woo's wildly successful return to his native country and language after an up-and-down decade in Hollywood (Hard Target, Face/Off, Mission Impossible II).
There are moments here reminiscent of the gonzo action of Woo's early Hong Kong classics such as Hard-Boiled and The Killer: In one early battle scene, a general fights off several sword-welding opponents — first on foot, then on horseback — while transporting an infant in a pouch slung across his shoulder.
But those flourishes are exceptions. Red Cliff is ultimately a more mature work. It's still packed with first-rate action, but the presentation is stately, the characterizations more assured.
Based on a lengthy 14th-century historical novel apparently deeply embedded in Chinese culture, Red Cliff is a vast production — the most expensive Chinese film ever made — and has been an equally enormous success, becoming the country's highest-grossing film.
Red Cliff is set in the 3rd century, when the Han dynasty, having taken over the north, turns south to battle a couple of smaller rulers — Lui Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang) — who forge an alliance. Ultimately leading the combined resistance force is Sun Quan's viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), whose mountainous home region provides the film's title.
A true international star (In the Mood for Love, Lust-Caution, Hard-Boiled), Leung is terrifically charismatic here and gets a grand entrance commensurate to his big-screen stature. He lives up to the introduction by delivering a commanding performance full of humor and gravity and physical grace. And he isn't alone. For a film built on vast landscapes and epic battle scenes, Red Cliff is notable for its memorable individual characters. Beyond Leung's Zhou Yu, these include Lin Chi-ling as his wife, "a famed beauty" partly responsible for the war (shades of Helen of Troy) who seeks to end it peacefully; Takeshi Kaneshiro as Lui Bei's military strategist, chief diplomat, and ace movie sidekick; and Zhao Wei as Sun Quan's game sister, who infiltrates the enemy camp on a daring spy mission.
What separates the battle scenes — on land or sea — in Red Cliff from most recent films that strive for similar scope isn't just that Woo isn't overreliant on obvious computer-generated effects but that there's so much detail and wit — sunlight-reflecting shields, typhoid-stricken corpses as proto-biological weapons, an ingenious trick to steal enemy arrows, the outdated but still effective "tortoise formation."
Ultimately, Red Cliff is something of an old-fashioned spectacle. In both its enormous battle scenes and in-close combat, there's certainly some blood and plenty of death but not much gore. Woo's film is stirring but always fun. The director who once didn't know restraint now balances the epic and the intimate, male and female, blood and beauty. It's a grand, entertaining movie, and interested filmgoers shouldn't let subtitles keep them away.