(director/writer: John Woo; screenwriters: Khan Chan/Kuo Cheng/Sheng Heyu; cinematographers: Lu Yue/Zhang Li; editors: Angie Lam/Yang Hongu/ Robert A. Ferretti; music: TarĂ´ Iwashiro; cast: Tony Leung (Zhou Yu), Takeshi Kaneshiro (Kong Ming), Zhang Fengyi (Cao Cao), Chang Chen (Sun Quan), Zhao Wei (Sun Shangxiang), Hu Jun (Zhao Yun, a k a Zhao Zilong), Shidou Nakamura (Gan Xing), Chiling Lin (Xiao Qiao), Basenzabu (Guan Yu), Chiling Lin (Xiao Qiao); Runtime: 148; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Terence Chang/John Woo; Magnet Releasing/Magnolia; 2008- China/Japan/ Taiwan/South Korea/U.S.-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“It’s not top-notch Woo, but it’s also not Hollywood so-so Woo.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hong Kong director John Woo (“Windtalkers”/”Paycheck”/”Mission: Impossible II”) returns to his native roots after a less than glorious Hollywood stint and cowrites and helms in an old-fashioned style this stunningly beautiful costume historical epic action pic. It’s the kind of macho war pic that fills the screen with constant battle scenes and reminds me of the critic-proof action pictures I favored as a child when attending Saturday matinees.

Red Cliff was the most expensive Chinese-language picture ever ($80 million and years in the making), and is filmed in two parts (Part 2 to soon be released). In a grand style it re-creates the 208 A.D. Battle of Chibi, the most legendary military accomplishment in Chinese history. It’s also the top grossing film in China’s history.

The famous battle was recorded in a third-century chronicle by Chen Shou, which the filmmaker uses but also loosely adds to his sources the historical novel classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by 14th-century scribe Luo Guanzhong, and the cinema imagination of the other screenwriters Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, and Sheng Heyu. The results might not entirely please an Asian audience more familiar with its history than an American audience, nevertheless if taken on its own merits the handsome film is a pleasing work.

In the summer of AD 208, the villainous prime minister/general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) gets permission from the weak Han dynasty Emperor Xian (Wang Ning), after browbeating him, to lead his massive army south to make war with the “rebellious” warlords: the elderly Liu Bei (You Yong) and the callow upstart Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Loser Liu takes heavy causalities and retreats, while his brave Gen. Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) single-handedly rescues Liu’s infant son from Cao Cao’s army. Meanwhile the imperial court is tense over the war prospects and the political machinations taking place will result in the period of turmoil, known as the Three Kingdoms.

The film’s middle part has Liu’s cunning adviser, Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), propose an alliance between him and rival warlord Sun Quan. Attention now turns to the neurotic Sun and his tomboyish sister, Sun Shangxiang (Vicki Zhao). After 40 minutes, Woo regular, Tony Leung (a last minute replacement for Chow Yun-Fat), makes his appearance and his characterization of Zhou Yu, Sun’s resolute viceroy, takes over in the film’s main role. Meanwhile Zhou’s beautiful wife (Chiling Lin, Taiwanese model) lights up the screen with her radiance.

The undermanned allies, the Davids in this David and Goliath tale, now face Cao Cao’s legendary forces as one, something Cao Cao didn’t calculate.The impressive 20-minute action sequence, at the film’s 105 minute point, presenting the ‘Mother’ of all battles that took over a year to film, has Cao Cao’s massive cavalry army face in the south Sun and Liu’s forces in the Battle of Changban. The war results in the collapse of the 400-year-old Han dynasty.

The modern dialogue vulgarized the pic, a gratuitous sex scene didn’t work, the comic relief dropped the ball, the political intrigue scenes brought on yawns and the ensemble cast were only so-so. Even the talented Leung, a romantic matinee heartthrob, appears out of place as an action hero. He lacks the physical strength and commanding presence. But when it comes to the acting, no one can say that Leung doesn’t have the acting chops. Despite all its faults, the film as spectacle satisfied as entertainment because of its impressive choreography of the battle scenes, its penchant for detail and it gorgeously captured the stately look of imperial times in the third century. It’s not top-notch Woo, but it’s also not Hollywood so-so Woo.

Red Cliff Poster