Red Cliff is a new moment in John Woo’s career, a film that separates itself from both his innovative Hong Kong action films and his American films of the last 16 years (often defined by featuring either Nicholas Cage, John Travolta, or Christian Slater). Indeed, Woo is clearly stepping out of his comfort zone, becoming more Kurosawa than Seijun Suzuki or Jerry Bruckheimer. Woo doesn’t set aside the elements that made his early films auteuristic classics; he has subsumed them, learned from them. Sure, there are bloody sword cuts to the neck, but the blood and the action are salted across the film with moderation. However, much of this pacing may well be the result of the film’s original version being two films totaling five hours. The version released in America is merged into a single film clocking in at a pinch less than two-and-a-half hours. But outside of the first 10 minutes, which plays like a trailer for part of the story that was cut, the film never feels lacking.
Woo’s return to China after 16 years absence – this being his first film shot in mainland China – is surely one of two reasons that Red Cliff can be called a revitalization of the John Woo brand. The second being that Red Cliff is epic, in the best sense possible (his previous films always lacked the lyricism and patience of epics). Taking place during the Three Kingdoms period, specifically during the Battle for Red Cliff in 208 AD, self-proclaimed Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is seizing power from a weak Emperor Han (Wang Ning). He seeks to take the southern Kingdoms of Xu and Wu from respective leaders Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Both Kingdoms are weak, shepherding small armies, but they -- led by Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), Sun Quan’s general and advisor, and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Liu Bei’s military strategist -- plot an alliance against Cao Cao’s vast army.
Devoid of the overacting that has killed other war epics like Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven, Leung and Kaneshiro give performances of great depth, never coming across as the one-dimensional hardened military veterans that permeate films of this nature. Their characters have doubts, admit their faults, see their weaknesses. Debut actress Chiling Lin, who plays the desired Xiao Qiao, wife of Zhou Yu and the love interest of the conquesting Cao Cao, also brings depth to a character that feels somewhat shorted in the screenplay (the film's only major misstep). Indeed, the significance of this war would normally threaten to devour any serious character examinations, yet Woo has found true character in the generals and leaders of these people, excepting of course Cao Cao, who is depicted with the same depth as a mustache-twirling, black-hatted bad-guy in a John Wayne film.
Ultimately, it’s moderation that makes Red Cliff work, with its action moving swiftly and becoming all the more powerful and piquant for having never lingered. The battles don’t rage too long; Cao Cao’s lust towards Xiao Qiao is never melodramatic; the battles are not over-stylized (the armies don’t fly through the air); the lyricism is pointed; and the color palette isn’t overdone in the way, say, director Zhang Yimou might have (no doubt there would have been lots of wildly colored flowers falling from the sky in his version). The film is beautiful, but organically so; it feels hard-earned, despite a few moments of painful CGI involving a white bird carrying a message from the allies to their spy in Cao Cao’s camp. It feels odd to say this about a 62-year-old director of countless films, but Red Cliff reveals a mature John Woo. This is the kind of film you’ve always wished he would make when you were staying in on a Saturday night watching The Killer or, secretly, Face/Off, for the fifth time.