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Battle Royal of Wits

Red Cliff (2008)

Magnet Releasing

Once among the most prolific directors, John Woo has disappeared in the six years since the release of “Paycheck.” With the domestic opening of this streamlined version of “Red Cliff,” the most expensive Asian-financed film in history and setter of Chinese box-office records, he shows us all where he’s been.

He could have plausibly spent such a long time on this enormous, epic production, a loose adaptation of the seminal novel “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” The film follows the warring between Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) and other major figures of the Han Dynasty, which came to an end with the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 A.D.

Although betrayals, acts of courage and other plot developments take hold, the movie exists for one reason above all: the battle scenes. Every cent of the $124 million budget can be seen in the fiery explosions, phalanx of arrows, flotilla of warships stretching to the horizon, thousands of extras and close-ups of hand-to-hand combat. Mr. Woo claims each sequence took about a year to come together, and that careful attention shows in their extraordinary precision, mobility and detail.

Yet, even the grandest of epics must pull off the small moments interspersed between the lovingly crafted set pieces. This one bogs down in that human detail, the area that traditionally torpedoes Mr. Woo’s work. The characters function less as flesh-and-blood figures than obtuse archetypes. They look and act as if they know they belong in an epic, speaking in hushed demonstrative tones and gliding through spaces. The filmmaker makes no attempt to infuse the portraits with subtlety, opting for exaggerated angles and camera techniques that overly telegraph his intentions, and the purposefully simplistic dialogue lands with a self-conscious thud.

Even the combat — although impressive in scope — comes across overly showy, as if Mr. Woo purposefully decided to pull out all the stops and never let you forget it. He takes the kitchen-sink approach to the action sequences, cramming each with so many different elements that he forgets to give the audience room to breathe. They’re so overstuffed that they eventually grow tedious; and the absence of well-rounded characters worth caring about only furthers that remove. While it’s undoubtedly an impressive achievement, “Red Cliff” never provides the satisfying, big-budget spectacle entertainment it seems to promise.


Opens on Nov. 18 in New York and on Nov. 20 in Los Angeles.

Directed by John Woo; written by Mr. Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu; directors of photography, Lu Yue and Zhang Li; edited by Angie Lam, Yang Hongu and Robert A. Ferretti; music by Taro Iwashiro; production designer, Tim Yip; produced by Terence Chang and Mr. Woo; released by Magnet Releasing. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 28 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Tony Leung (Zhou Yu), Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge Liang), Zhang Fengyi (Cao Cao), Chang Chen (Sun Quan), Zhao Wei (Sun Shangxiang), Hu Jun (Zhao Yun, a k a Zhao Zilong), Shidou Nakamura (Gan Xing) and Lin Chiling (Xiao Qiao).


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