I discovered John Woo’s work watching THE KILLER and A BULLET IN THE HEAD one afternoon in 1991, though he had been making films for almost twenty years before. I was immediately taken in by the balletic flow of action scenes, the sly humor, and a strangely assured combination of bloody violence and tender, human connections that drove his stories. Like Scorsese, Herzog, and a small circle of favorite directors, he became a name attached to anticipation: what would the next John Woo film be?
After a spate of “American” films, English language endeavors with Hollywood bankrolls and accommodating stars, Woo’s flourishes seemed to become more like badges of notoriety. The slow-motion doves, whirling moves of gun-slinging adversaries, and a knack for clever stand-offs – the gimmicks of his moviemaking - became the driving force, while the strength of characters and relationships declined.
Woo wanted to make a Chinese historical epic with Hollywood blockbuster juice that would be interesting to Asian and non-Asian audiences. Opting to depict a story as powerful to Chinese viewers as World War 2 is to Americans, he chose The Battle of Red Cliff, which took place in 208 A.D. and was first detailed in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. With RED CLIFF, Woo provides an interesting film with flashes of brilliance, but one that fails, like the northern armies, due to bad luck and poor tactics.
Prime Minister/General Cao Cao has gained approval from the Han Emperor to subjugate two warlords’ followers, in an effort to gain control of all of China. To the south, Liu Bei and Sun Quan join military forces to combat Cao Cao, though the odds seem overwhelmingly against them. Cao Cao’s entire naval fleet and accompanying armies make camp across the Yangtze River from that of Sun Quan’s most trusted general, Zhou Yu, at Red Cliff. Liu Bei’s tactician Kong Ming works with Zhou Yu and the combined generals of both armies to defend themselves against Cao Cao.
The film specializes in the art of war; displays of tactical moves and counter-moves and the intricate choreography of fight scenes are the most engaging and successful parts of the film. The “Tortoise Battle” sequence is one example of how RED CLIFF has moments of perfection, as a double-cross turns into a trap set by the defending armies, which in turn is discovered to be merely a test of their strengths by the invading forces. It is a cleverly-written, sharply defined and highly entertaining sequence, but those strengths are not found together often enough in RED CLIFF.
Woo does manage to create some engaging characters, though thanks to the scope of the film and the reduced run-time (a five -and-one-half hour pair of films has been edited down to a two-and-a-half hour final product), many do not get sufficient screen time to be viewed as more than a face and a few heroic action scenes. The editing hurts more powerful parts of the film while prolonging the problem areas. An early fight scene where General Guan Yu of Liu Bei’s army fends off large numbers of Cao Cao’s forces, is taken captive, objects to Liu Bei’s flag being tread upon by a horse, threatens Cao Cao, takes back the flag and escapes unscathed is abbreviated to a few seconds of fight-flag-escape, which may not make sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the longer version. Alternately, a lengthy and tiresome musical duet between a general and a tactician and a panning shot of a dove flying from one camp to the other are unnecessary and elicit an unintended comical response.
When Woo decides to add his trademark flourishes, they feel jarring and are ill-suited to the story being told. Slow motion doves and battle action can be overlooked, but a last-minute stand-off with multiple warriors holding swords at each others’ throats (like the more iconic scenes of gunplay in THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED) just doesn’t work. Aside from the editing, the most glaring problem with the film is its uneven use of CG effects. A film like RED CLIFF would have been far too massive and dangerous to shoot were it not for the use of CG. False panoramas of scenery are beautifully done, while overhead images of Cao Cao’s fleet and armies are less believable. Fire effects in the crucial final act are magnificent, thrilling, but occasionally amateurish in execution. For a film that relies so heavily on these effects, it’s a shame they couldn’t have worked with production houses that managed far more believable work on less honorable films (I’m looking at you, 2012).
Even the hardcore John Woo follower may find his patience tested watching RED CLIFF. Perhaps the director simply bit off more than he could chew, but I want to believe that refined effects work and a different, somewhere-in-the-middle edit would make the film more palatable. While I hate to pigeonhole any artist, part of me simply wants John Woo to find Anthony Wong and Chow Yun-Fat, give them a large supply of guns and conflict, and start shooting. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD; re-posted with permission of the AFFD)