All The TNT In China
Bigger not better for action maestro John Woo
Here's a theory as to why director John Woo's classic mid-'80s Hong Kong action movies worked so well: everything was small. Not Chow Yun-Fat's charisma, or the way he pivoted and dived and blazed away with a pair of automatics in A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, but Chow pivoted and dived and blazed away in tiny apartments and hallways, firing at foes mere feet, or even inches away, making the action all the more explosive. As Woo's movies became more successful and won bigger budgets, he staged bigger set pieces (e.g. Hard Boiled's over-the-top hospital shoot-out), but the most dazzling sequences were the ones that strained against more modest physical limits (e.g. Hard Boiled's opening tea house takedown). Woo's shift to Hollywood brought even bigger budgets and ever more grandiose action, though arguably the best, most memorable sequence from any of his increasingly dispiriting U.S. movies is a shoot-out in Face/Off that takes place entirely in a child's bedroom.
There is nothing small about Red Cliff, Woo's first Chinese movie since 1992. Even cut down for American audiences from the two-part, nearly five-hour Chinese version, it clocks in at 148 minutes. Shooting in China allowed Woo to afford to field thousands and thousands of extras to portray the troops of the various massive armies that collided in the historic Battle of Red Cliffs along the Yangtze River in the third century A.D. Enormous fleets of ships, a series of huge battles, enough pyrotechnics to be visible from space--real or CGI or some combination thereof, the scale here is rarely less than gargantuan. But while Red Cliff wows with sheer spectacle, you know what they say about more vs. less.
Plot-wise, imperious warlord Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) intimidates the browbeaten emperor into sanctioning his invasion of the lands below the Yangtze, ostensibly to suppress a pair of rebellious regimes. As Cao's mammoth army presses south, the sparring regimes reluctantly agree to unite and fight back, spearheaded by the leadership of Zhou Yu (Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung) and aided by the advice of wily strategist Zhuge Liang (House of Flying Daggers' Takeshi Kaneshiro). It is eventually revealed, however, that Cao went to all this trouble largely because of his long obsession with Xiao Qiao (Lin Chiling), Zhou's ravishing wife.
That last small bit of seemingly ahistorical personal melodrama appears designed to help give Red Cliff some human scale amid all the outsized maneuvering and the supersized cast of characters. (Woo's best movies tend to focus on two characters linked but opposed, another way small works to his advantage.) Woo even takes a few minutes out for a trés cliché sex scene between Leung and Lin, as if to establish that these two kids are really in love and worth rooting for. But most American viewers go into this story lacking any historical knowledge of or cultural connection to late Han Dynasty society or the battle, and we also miss out on literally hours of context-establishing/fleshing-out footage cut for the domestic release. Leung and Kaneshiro's undeniable appeal as protagonists aside, the actual drama of Red Cliff is surprisingly inert and uninvolving.
Which leaves Woo's visual handling of the various action sequences to keep your interest, and he holds nothing back. Zooms, whip pans, and the occasional wipe compete for your eyeballs with slow-mo hand-to-hand, arterial spray sparkling back-lit in the sun, and an arsenal of billowing proto-firebombs. Maybe the most arresting scene involves what amounts to a human lawnmower made out of shields and spears. Whether it makes sense or not, Woo often reduces the epic battles to primary characters dueling a ring of anonymous bad guys, a la every kung-fu flick ever made, but by the same token he gets good mileage out of stolen moments with Zang Jinsheng as a brawling Mifune-esque general, who at one point basically tackles a couple of enemy cavalrymen to the ground, horses and all. By the end of Red Cliff, almost everything you see is wrapped in walls of flame, at which point it's a little hard to care what's burning and what's not. Sure is fiery, though.