For all of its gazillions of dollars, technological innovations, and offerings of new patients to ophthalmologists everywhere, world cinema's latest "game-changer" may turn out to be not big blue Avatar but Red Cliff, John Woo's deliriously epic spectacle that smashed box-office records in China and barely made a blip on screens in the States. The version that appeared in most art-houses here was sliced and diced from 290 minutes down to 148, which -- to paraphrase a favorite line from Walk Hard -- wasn't half the movie the top half of the original movie was even after they cut it in half. Luckily for us, the two-part, full-length "International Version" is now available on Netflix, and if seeing it at home is a little like viewing Lawrence of Arabia through a periscope, it's still by far the most exhilarating experience I've had watching a movie all year.
Ironically, the fun of the film derives from something that's always bugged me about Woo -- as a critic once noted, the sense that he approaches every cinematic cliche as if he's never seen one before. I was well sick of his action-thrillers by the time Mission: Impossible II and Paycheck rolled around, to the point where I hoped I never saw guns and doves together in the same frame again. Woo was wise to take a break, return to his roots and tackle a different genre. There's nothing new on the surface of Red Cliff, a swords-and-horses extravaganza with echoes of Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and plenty of other films released over the last decade. What matters is it's all new to Woo. Painting on a large canvas clearly excites him, and he renders the experience every bit as fun as Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe make it a chore.
Red Cliff is a film propelled by its villain: Cao Cao (the outstanding Fengyi Zhang), ambitious prime minister of the 3rd-century A.D. Han Dynasty, manipulates the young emperor to declare war on the neighboring Wu kingdom governed by the relatively temperate Liu Bei (Yong You). In the first major battle sequence, Cao Cao's army encounters heavy casualties at the hands of Liu Bei's commanders, a trio of super-warriors that could have stepped out of a Kurosawa picture. (The wire-work isn't overdone; it just there enough to make you laugh.) One of them uses shields to reflect the sun on a cavalry charge in a moment that easily trumps a similar scene from Braveheart; another rescues a baby in a frantic sequence that becomes a clever homage to Hard-Boiled. The Han forces turn out to be too massive to overcome, yet it's notable that Liu Bei's primary concern is protecting the throngs of refugees evacuating the battlefield. Although Red Cliff is based on an ancient Chinese tale (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), the notion that a ruler would find responsibility in taking care of his own people is, one might suggest, downright visionary.
The Han invasion prompts a hasty alliance between the Wu and Xu kingdoms, the latter of which is led by the capable yet insecure ruler Sun Quan (Chang Chen, who played the charismatic bandit in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Liu Bei and Sun, however, become supporting characters as their respective military strategists take centerstage: the eerily prescient, fan-waving Zhuge Liang (a wonderful performance by Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the stoic, music-loving Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). Kaneshiro and Leung never interacted as the nameless cops in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, which Woo seems hellbent on rectifying here. The heart of Red Cliff is the growing bond between these two men, often framed together in tight close-ups where they valiantly stare each other down without cracking a smile. (Both, as Jerry Seinfeld would observe, are "close-talkers.") Zhuge and Zhou never stop reminding us that their alliance could turn adversarial at any moment, a forced tension that's never wholly convincing given the palpable guy-love they feel for each other. (In case we miss the subtext, Zhou's wife -- played by Chiling Lin -- points out after an impromptu musical recital between the pair that her husband "hasn't played his qin in a long time.")
Despite his usual macho-centrism, Woo fares well with a couple of key female characters: Xiao Quiao (i.e., Mrs. Zhou), who figures prominently in the closing act, wielding nothing more than a cup of tea; and Li Ji (Jia Song), the spunky Xu princess who goes undercover as a male soldier and befriends a likably dimwitted Han commander. A few of these plot threads get a little tangled in the second half of Red Cliff; for a while, Woo seems to lose the focus and momentum that he achieves in the first half. Just then, though, Cao Cao rouses his weary, typhoid-afflicted troops for the final battle. Cao Cao may have a name that unfondly recalls the Star Wars prequels yet he has all the personality a George Lucas creation lacks, cunning without being superficially evil. Inspirational speeches are nothing new in this kind of movie, but it's a kick that the one we hear in Red Cliff is delivered by the bad guy.
Woo's staging of the battle scenes isn't without glitches. There were a few instances during the grand "tortoise formation" set-piece -- at the end of Part I -- where I had no idea who or what I was looking at. Woo could use some of Peter Jackson's clarity. Yet as much as I admired The Lord of the Rings, its Orcs and Elves and Hobbits and Wizards kept me at a degree of emotional distance. (The moments that registered strongest for me came from the less fantastical Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto and Bernard Hill.) Red Cliff, for all its dazzling size and daunting scope, is still rendered on a very human scale. By now we've all grown accustomed to Hollywood's disinterest in people; even James Cameron, who has always populated his blockbusters with memorable characters, suggested (rather depressingly) at the climax of his last film that our collective destinies lie as avatars inside a computer screen. The everywhere-but-here success of Red Cliff, though, suggests a compelling alternate fate, one where we are no longer privileged stars at the center of the universe but now have to fight for screentime.