It’s been a while since I’ve looked forward to anything made by John Woo – (Hoo)! He sorta dropped the ball since his first few US attempts, most notably Face-Off, and over the past 12 years made a bunch of mediocre cookie cutter things like Windtalkers and Paycheck (bleh). So it was a relief that I finally saw reason to actually hunt down or even just look forward to a new film by the Woo-ster.
And while Red Cliff didn’t let me down, it is obvious that Mr Woo is attempting to replicate the success of The Lord of the Rings, an admirable goal that is perhaps let down by a story that, although true, is just not “epic” enough to warrant a triple play in the first place.
While I was watching the first 30 minutes or so I couldn’t help but recall distinctly a PS2 game called Dynasty Warriors, which basically had you play as a random significant Chinese historical figure as he hacked and slashed his way through prominent battles in Chinese history. As you progressed through the battle you’d periodically come up against other prominent generals and leaders in the enemy ranks, ultimately culminating in a showdown between your character and the boss man of the opponents.
It was a cool game but I never really thought much of the actual battles depicted in the game as being factual until seeing Red Cliff, every few minutes I thought “hang on, I remember him from that game”. Believe it or not, a video game I haven’t played for at least 8 years actually helped me keep track of the events and characters in an historical picture based on true events.
Red Cliff is all about a battle between a huge army led by a corrupt leader named Cao-Cao and a far smaller army of the combined forces of Lui Bei and Sun Quan. Not to drag out the cliched and racist gag of they all look the same, but there are so many characters in the early stages of this film that I at times couldn’t work out who was a good guy and who was a bad guy.
About half way into the second hour it is clear who is a goodie and a baddie, and it is equally clear who will win, because the good guys are really pure and nice and the bad guys are subtly evil. (This being China I would guess that they couldn’t possibly portray a Chinese historical figure of any significance as totally bad or evil.) What? The internet is available in China? I mean no-one from China has ever been anything but supercool.
The battles look pretty awesome in scale, thousands of people appear on screen at once, though it is fairly clear in the later armada scenes that a lot of CGI is used, also the blood gushes freely and is also pretty fake looking. You’ll find no scragging and dirty tricks here, every move is carefully choreographed and flows smoothly, and though it looks gorgeous no-one will mistake this for documentary battle footage. In one huge chaotic battle a general fights many opponents single handedly and defeats them all… Not enough? Did I mention he was holding a newborn baby all the while?! I didn’t? I’m pretty sure I did!
To sum up the three hour movie in about thirty seconds: Cao-Cao is the leader of the Emporer’s army, but he’s shonky and basically bullies the Emporer into rubber-stamping a war against two armies from the South of China, so that he might wipe out his primary opposition and pave the way to him coming back and taking the throne for himself.
The two armies are not nearly as powerful as the Emperor’s army, so Liu Bei sends his envoy Zhu Be to the leader of the second army Sun Quan to ask for his help. Now Zhu Be and Sun Quan are both awesome guys, polite, learned and incredibly tactful, and after they play a tune together and Zhu Be plays midwife to the family horse they decide to join forces to defend themselves.
They realise that even with two armies, they are still severely undermanned, so “300” style they head to an isolated army base known as Red Cliff and dig in. The strength of the underdogs is that they had a strong naval fleet, and the easiest way for an enemy to attack is via the river.
There are the usual big battle movie rules, millions of faceless soldiers are hacked to pieces and die swift and pointless deaths, generals are largely responsible for most of those deaths but never die themselves, probably until the third film I guess.
Cao-Cao throws some feints, uses some red herrings and basically plays dirty pool until the end of the film, which ends not so much on a cliffhanger, but after a longwinded set up for the next major battle, this was a bit of a pisser as just as I was hanging out for one more big fight scene to start, the credits rolled.
I guess that means Red Cliff 2 : Cao-Cao’s Strikes Back is inevitable. I guess now that I am three hours in I’ll check it out, but more because I am a completist and would feel like something was missing in my life without it rather than I think it will be a great movie.
Final Rating – 6.5 / 10. John Woo goes the historical epic to try to regain his mojo with mixed results.