While I'd argue that John Woo has been the most successful of the rush of Asian directors into Hollywoodland with only one truly terrible film (Paycheck, I'm looking at you), I don't think it's too controversial a statement to say that he's never reached his Heroic Bloodshed fulled peak away from his homeland. News that he was heading back there to film this Three Kingdoms era two part historical civil war epic (at least on the Asian releases) was welcomed, so now that the first instalment is in our grubby little hands, how on earth does it fare?
Well, I'm glad you asked that, hypothetical questioner. In short, it's a very promising start to a project that I'm getting the impression would rather be watched in a monolithic block rather than as two separate films, which brings with it a few irritations. What are these irritations, exactly? Well, hold your horses, hypothetical questioner. We'll get to that, but wouldn't you rather know a bit about the plot first? Of course you would. Largely because you're my rhetorical device and you'll do what I tell you, but let's not spoil it for the kiddies, eh?
Although, that said, if I start trying to relate much of the plot it's going to segue into a history essay written by someone with a fairly shallow knowledge of the subject, which is hardly going to be of much use to mankind. The abridged version runs roughly thus: circa 220 AD, the Han Dynasty has fragmented into three power bases. In the north, the young Han Emperor has been manipulated into divesting much of his power to his Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), who we're told is a greedy and ambitious man and I've no reason to doubt it.
The West is held by the noble Lord Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and his army lead by equally noble and fearsome generals, although their continued efforts to protect his people fleeing from Cao Cao's invading massive armies proves to be a drain on resources. Realising that defeat will be inevitable without an alliance, chief strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent south to convince young lord Liu Bei (Yong You) and his viceroy, general and tactical genius Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) that they'll be next in line for Cao Cao's attentions and they'd be better served by teaming up and fighting now.
All of which sounds like an awful lot of setup to a few big armies having a barney, especially given that I'm politely skipping over most of the supporting characters in the interests of brevity. Hey, I'm not wikipedia. Although I'm probably about as reliable. It turns out that it is an awful lot of setup, and in retrospect perhaps I should have expected that in the first part of a trilogy. I'm not going to deny, however, that after so effectively building up to a massive pitched military action for about two hours I was really starting to look forward to a massive pitched military action before being told to wait for the next film for the massive pitched military action. And lo, my screams of anguish were heard across the land, and those screams were foul and cursed the names of all souls concerned.
Well, it's a bit of a dick move, isn't it? Showing Cao Cao's massive navy, to which the only possible thought is "Hoho! Someone's going to get a slap!", and then not show that slap is just irritating. It breaks Chekov's gun rule in ways that it was not meant to be broken, which is where I'm coming from with that 'view them all together' hypothesis. However, bear in mind that this theory has been pulled directly from my ass with no supporting evidence whatsoever.
That aside, there's very little else to complain about. With a cast list that includes pretty much every notable actor working in that neck of the woods it's perhaps not surprising that the dramatic elements are well realised, with solid, believable characters. Well, emotionally, at least, I'm not so sure about the fighting ability, but we'll get to that. If there's one area where CG is still capable of impressing me, it's scope, and that's shown off to great effect here. One big CG monster? Meh. Thousands upon thousands of ships massing to invade? Woo!
When that's backed by action sequences that aren't afraid to throw hundreds of extras at the camera to see what sticks, the net effect is quite convincing. Despite my previous bleatings, it's not fair to say that there's no action at all in Red Cliff, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale than I'd been led to believe. The sequences are, however, no less perfectly formed for all that. They're certainly fun, although the prowess of the generals on display here does make you wonder why they bother with footsoldiers at all. Low level troops appear to exist purely to be ploughed through by the leads in a way which might not be realistic, but it's certainly fun to watch.
This, I think, shows signs of being Woo's Lord of the Rings, and there's a certain structural similarity to Fellowship of the Ring. There's a lot of setup, with the action doled out sparingly enough to maintain interest while building up to the maelstrom that must surely be unleashed throughout the remainder of the films. Certainly Red Cliff kept me entertained while leaving me chomping at the bit for the next instalment, so it's surely achieving what it wants to. Epic in scope and crafted to the highest standards, it's well worth a look.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Tony Leung (Zhou Yu)
Fengyi Zhang (Cao Cao)