Conceived and released in its native China as a five-hour, two-film saga, John Woo’s Red Cliff has been condensed into one two-and-a-half-hour version for American audiences, a truncation that leaves this historical epic (the most expensive Chinese production to date) feeling like half a movie. Woo’s generally forgettable work on U.S. shores featured the director’s signature style—balletic gunplay and standoffs drenched in slow-motion and embellished with flying doves—devolving into self-parody, and unfortunately, that slide isn’t wholly halted by the director’s return home. The same old visual and narrative tropes are present throughout the action auteur’s latest, from quick jump cuts to interplays between carnage and lyricism (here marked by a musical duet between two military comrades) to those pesky flying doves, which receive a borderline-laughable centerpiece shot all their own as Woo tracks the flight of a (blatantly CG) bird across his expansive battlefield milieu. If ever a trademark flourish had outworn its welcome, Woo’s avian fetish is surely it, though if the director’s recurring motifs remain pale shadows of their former selves, his choreography of large-scale skirmishes proves impressive, boasting a physical scale and tense pacing that helps overshadow a lack of spatial lucidity and some out-of-place superhuman exploits.
The film’s shortcomings, however, have less to do with Woo’s orchestration of his ambitious tale—which, in terms of dramatic vigor and warfare inventiveness, dwarfs its Troy and Kingdom of Heaven history-book brethren—and more to do with the Frankenstein hatchet job enacted against it. The trouble signs are immediate, as an American movie-trailer narrator explains the basic scenario over bewildering battlefield footage pockmarked with text to identify main players. Still, disorientation soon fades, and the primary plot thread becomes more clear: In 208 A.D., the Han dynasty’s prime minster-turned-general Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) seeks to conquer the southern provinces but is contested by Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen), regional leaders who join forces to repel the imperial army’s insurgency. This fight against the ruthless Cao Cao is led by Liu Bei’s strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), with the latter’s beautiful wife (Chiling Lin) soon revealed to be the real prize that Cao Cao seeks. All of this is set up semi-coherently, yet one can sense in the sketchiness of its main characters and the plethora of peripheral personalities who crop up and then disappear with distracting randomness, that the film’s meat has been stripped off its bones, and that only crucial narrative info has been left intact to tether together Woo’s chaotic clashes.
Despite performances that have obviously suffered at the hands of editorial mishmashing, Red Cliff is never a wholly impersonal affair thanks to the presence of Leung, whose effortless balance of steely resolve and swoon-worthy sensitivity has a potency to match Woo’s larger-than-life mayhem. And whether driven by creative impulses or simply runtime-dictated necessity, the director’s distinctive use of in-scene fade transitions from shot to shot lends the proceedings a hypnotic grace. Were such a mood maintained more consistently, the story might have fully overcome its abridged condition and some distracting cheesiness, from warriors flipping, leaping, and sliding with unreal athleticism (a byproduct of obvious wire-work effects), to Liang putting his ear to the ground to hear encroaching armies, standing in fields communing with the wind, and scrutinizing the rapidly-rolling storm clouds like an ancient, extrasensory-enabled Al Roker.
Nonetheless, the film’s extended finale remains a career achievement for Woo, its expansive portrait of the battle at Red Cliffs along the Yangtze River—intrigue and subterfuge spilling into fiery naval battles that then topple into hack-and-slash ground combat—so breathlessly staged that one ultimately craves more emotional investment in its under-characterized participants. Which, in the end, is the same thing as a desire for a bootleg copy of the film’s original two-feature form.