“You don’t know what you’re missing.” As cliché phrases go, this one is definitely overused without merit. After watching the combined “Western” version of Red Cliff I can definitely say that I don’t know what I’m missing. Combining two films that total 280 minutes into one abbreviated film of about 148 minutes must have been a very difficult task. Still, unless I track down imported bootlegs or read the Wikipedia summary, I won’t ever notice a thing. This is both good and bad, as the film manages to carry on seemingly without notice.
Red Cliff tackles the famous Chinese subject matter dealing with the time near the end of the Han Dynasty. If you’re a gamer you’ve no doubt heard of or played the Dynasty Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms games that have been based during this era. The Battle of the Red Cliff is legendary, to the point that a good portion of the factual basis of the story has been lost over time, with the most accurate being the Records of Three Kingdoms. For me to go into how everything, historically, happens would be a waste of your time and mine, so let me just get into what it is like to watch the film.
Red Cliff starts off with a small narration that tells you the time period and a little bit of where things are with the characters as you meet them. The narration comes off a bit hokey, and really we could have used just a Star Wars style “crawl” to lead us into the film, but it gets the job done. I guess the biggest detraction from the introduction is that the film is completely subtitled and the narration is spoken in English. They may as well have kept the viewer concentrated on reading instead of breaking it up with narration. As the tensions build up between the kingdoms in the dynasty, alliances start to form, trusts begin to build, and body parts begin to fly. John Woo’s kinetic masterstrokes are all over this film, as are his signature uses of slow motion and flying doves. I kid you not. I guess he knows the joke by now, but he doesn’t ever let up with it. Still, it never comes off as cheesy or contrived in this film.
For a 148 minute film, it seems to never slow down. I guess the good thing about condensing two films is that you can keep a strong kinetic pace when you have so much to cull from. The story itself is fairly basic and the strategies are never surprising. The minor annoyances seem to be how each strategist involved with both sides of the war always knows what is about to happen. From weather patterns to the other sides motivations and moves, you almost wonder how they were able to wage such a brutal war when everyone knew everything. Of course there is a little bit of surprise for one side when the other apparently has a strategist that doubles as a meteorologist. Eh.
Thankfully, for those who love violence, a tiny bit of romance and a whole lot of warring action, the film delivers. With battles that are one part Braveheart with a couple parts of Fearless and Hero, the blood flows endlessly and stylishly. While the action and intrigue never are a replacement for a good story, there is enough potatoes to accompany the meat of this film. Still, I do wish there was a bit more exposition to explain some of the finer details of the strategy and the relationships between the characters. However, I’m not one to complain about severed limbs, bloody stumps, and people screaming as they run around on fire.
While this version of Red Cliff may not be the historical epic that most are expecting, it is good to see John Woo in decent form, playing up his strengths and covering his weaknesses with a gloss of period action and set pieces. Die-hard history buffs would likely be better off waiting for a release of both films as they were intended on DVD or Blu-ray. However, anyone looking for a good Asian war film, ripe with action, solid acting and nods to a fabled time period of heroic lore, will be more than happy with the condensed concentration of action offered up here.
Movie Grade: B