The Chinese war epic Red Cliff loses something in the translation. Specifically, it loses about half of its running time. In its native China and other countries, Red Cliff comprises two sprawling parts totaling well over four hours, but the American edit clocks in at 148 minutes. The compression particularly punishes Red Cliff’s first half hour, a baffling series of introductions and combat scenes, scarcely clarified by English-language narration and titles identifying rival generals.
The Red Cliff viewing experience resembles seeing one of the latter Lord of the Rings movies without having seen the first one. But since Lord of the Rings was awesome, that’s not such a bad thing. Red Cliff marks an explosive comeback for director John Woo, who crafted deliriously operatic Hong Kong shoot-’em-ups before going Hollywood in the 1990s. After peaking with Face/Off, Woo shot a lot of celluloid blanks, but Red Cliff celebrates the return of the king.
With Red Cliff, Woo tries to steal the thunder from international martial arts hits like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but without fussing over cerebral themes. Beneath its historical footnotes, Red Cliff uses gilded finery and gallons of stage blood to recount a black-and-white story. Napoleonic Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), having conquered northern China’s warlords, turns his sights on two rebellious factions in the south. Noble viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, a frequent leading man of Wong Kar-Wai) unifies the good guys in defiance of Cao Cao’s military might. Despite the loveliness of his wife (Chiling Lin), Zhou Yu seems more attached to an elegant battlefield strategist (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who shares his love of music.
Once the film sets the stage and Cao Cao’s massive fleet cruises the Yangtze River to sack Zhou Yu’s base at Red Cliff, Woo delivers one spectacular set piece after another. In contrast to incoherent costume dramas such as Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Red Cliff presents wartime tactics with thrilling clarity: You comprehend the goals of different armies amid the flying spears, fireballs and countless platoons of extras. When warships clash in the fiery finale, Woo helms some of the most remarkable naval battles ever filmed. He doesn’t slouch on the badass hand-to-hand fighting, either. At one point, Zhou Yu takes an arrow in the chest, yanks it out, chases down the archer and stabs him with it.
Given the bloody splendor of Red Cliff, even in its truncated version, it’s amazing that action movie geeks haven’t lit up the Internet over Woo’s return to form. The need — nay, the right — to see Red Cliff in its all its uncut, gory glory should have film fans up in arms.