I would like to start by stating this is a review of the full 4.5 hour version of the film, I could write the review in two parts but I do not see any need to as if you see the first part you will follow up with the second, and for the most part there is no style difference between the two parts of the film. With that stated I would also like to advise I am quite the fan of John Woo films and this needs to be said to who ever is reading this, I am not just talking about Face Off, but his Hong Kong films as well, Hard Boiled is one of my all time favorites and I even enjoyed Windtalkers, so I have a lot of time for anything Woo directs. While Red Cliff is a departure from his normal bullet ballet films, it is a welcome change and he excels at the epic historical action that he has on display here.
The plot of the film follows events up to and including the Battle of Red Cliff. We mainly follow Zhuge Liang as he tries to bring together to factions in an alliance to stop the forces of Cao Cao from invading the country's southland's. As he tries to convince the nation of Wu to join the alliance he meets Zhou Yu and the two begin to form a strategy to defeat the numerically superior forces of Cao Cao and develop a friendship both will come to value.
While most would assume that Red Cliff is a film about action and one of the largest battles in history, at its core it is a story about two strategists who come together to defeat a common enemy. The film does have plenty of action in it but it is at its most thrilling in the exchanges between Zhuge Liang ( Takeshi Kaneshiro
) and Zhou Yu ( Tony Leung
). Both actors give superb performances in the roles and really make the friendship and mutual respect between the two characters to life. Possibly the best scene between them involves a musical duel where each is trying to understand the others intentions. The two actors had real chemistry and it adds to the performances on show, the rivalry in part 2 becomes that much more entertaining as the audience knows the characters are friends.
John Woo's direction is solid for the most part, but where he truly excels is in crafting thrilling action scenes. While he may be more used to action with guns and bullets, he still creates the same atmosphere and exhilaration with swords, spears and arrows. As stated above, I found the best moments were in the drama, but the action was awesome to watch and with a decent sound system parts of the film will shatter your eardrums, like the attack on Cao Cao's camp in part 2. At first the action may seem a little boring, this was definatley the feeling I had in the first action scene, however as it proceeds it becomes more thrilling and it is great to see these larger than life characters on the battlefield. Seeing Guan Yu tearing through enemies at the very beginning is electrifying, it is like seeing the Arnie of the ancient Chinese world! In all of Woo's films he has always made the action the focal point and it is the same here. He should teach classes in who action should be directed as there is never a point you do not know what is going on, or who as the upper hand, this is something that Hollywood directors could learn.
The supporting cast is all wonderful and give solid performances, each has a scene or a point where they shine, which is refreshing in a film with a large cast. Normally characters are present but do not get anything to do as they get cut at a later point, but here every character has a role to play and has their moment in the sun. Of the supporting cast there are three that stand out, they are Chen Chang
as Sun Quan, Shido Nakamura
as Gan Xing, and Chiling Lin
as Xaio Quio. These three parts became key roles as the film progressed and they all added to the overall experience. Chen Chang was probably the most conflicted character and it showed in his performance.
On a final note the were a few points that I did not like, I found the relationship between Sun Shang-xiang and the man she meets while spying to be not needed, it would have been better to just see her sneaking around the enemy camp but this is just my opinion, others may like this interaction. The other point I have to make is that in part 2 I was not a fan of the sword cut scene changes, while it worked during the recap at the beginning of part 2 it soon became quite jarring and brought me out of the film. This was the only real change stylistically between part 1 and 2 but it is noticeable.
I really liked Red Cliff and I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys forign film, martial arts films or historical films. It is thrilling to watch and the story is solid and entertaining. If you want an epic historical action film you could do a lot worse than watching red cliff.