John Woo’s new spectacle is packed with action

John Woo — the ace Hong Kong action auteur whom Hollywood snatched up and then didn’t know what to do with — has returned to Asian cinema with a bang or, rather, with the whiz of flying arrows, the clop of hooves and other forms of expanded verve.

The cause for note is “Red Cliff,” Woo’s vigorously entertaining Chinese war spectacle.

Drawing from the classic Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the nonfiction “Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms,” Woo and three co-writers present the events preceding a famous Chinese battle. A crazy but somehow workable mix of historical drama and action-fantasy takes hold.

In the year 208, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), a power-hungry imperial general, launches a war against two smaller kingdoms.

In order to survive, the two kingdoms — represented by scientific military strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and brave viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) — unite and strategize.

They try to outthink the ruthless Cao Cao and, despite their lesser numbers, win battles.

Additional players include a spirited warrior princess (Zhao Wei) and, adding melodrama, Zhang Yu’s tea-making wife (Chiling Lin), whom Cao Cao covets.

If you want profound war drama, rent “Ran.” With its stylized violence and CGI armadas, Woo’s film doesn’t convey battlefield truths, and the battle scenes are so frequent that they start feeling repetitive.

The actors are charismatic, but the screenplay allows them little opportunity to give their characters dimension. Only the brilliant Leung (reuniting with Woo 17 years after “Hard Boiled”) delivers much nuance.

Yet Woo — who has said that, with this movie, he hopes to prove that China can make an “epic film of the same caliber as a Hollywood production” — has indeed made a big, broad, physical, visual, captivating pleaser with a Chinese story, Asian talent and his own stylistic stamp (symbolic doves, and echoes of “Hard Boiled” and “Face/Off” included).

He displays less dexterity on this grander canvas than in the grittier fare that established him as a stylist, but Woo reveals maestro qualities that are sufficient to keep us immersed as he coordinates horses, ships, soldiers and, most pivotally, weather conditions.

The material involving military strategies — a “tortoise formation” stands out — transcends mere entertainment. The fiery climax at Red Cliffs caps things off with excitement.

The film, by the way, is a shortened version of a five-hour, two-part Asian release. And while it would benefit from even more trimming, Woo generally achieves the sweep and gravity necessary to justify the 2½-hour running time.

MOVIE REVIEW
Red Cliff ***

Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Fengyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhao Wei
Written by John Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu
Directed by John Woo
Rated R
Running time 2 hours 28 minutes

artsentertainmentJOHN WOOmovie reviewMovies

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Jill Bonny, owner of Studio Kazoku tattoo parlor in the Haight, tattoos client Lam Vo on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
No one was fighting for tattoo artists, so they started advocating for themselves

Jill Bonny has been tattooing in the Bay Area since 2000. Four… Continue reading

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to The City's streets including Slow Streets closures to increase open space access and the Shared Spaces program, which allows businesses to use public right-of-ways for dining, retail and services. (Examiner illustration)
COVID is reshaping the streets of San Francisco

Walk down Page Street, which is closed to thru-traffic, and you might… Continue reading

At a rally in February, Monthanus Ratanapakdee, left, and Eric Lawson remember Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who died after he was pushed to the pavement in San Francisco. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Examiner file photo)
The criminal justice system can’t fix what’s wrong in our community

My 87-year-old mother walks gingerly, slowly, deliberately, one step in front of… Continue reading

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said some students and families who want to return will not be able to do so at this time. “We truly wish we could reopen schools for everyone,” he said. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFUSD sets April reopening date after reaching tentative agreement with teachers union

San Francisco Unified School District has set April 12 as its reopening… Continue reading

José Victor Luna and Maria Anabella Ochoa, who cite health reasons for continuing distance learning, say they have been enjoying walking in Golden Gate Park with their daughters Jazmin, a first grader, and Jessica, a third grader. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Some SFUSD families prefer distance learning

Health issues, classroom uncertainties among reasons for staying home

Most Read