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For most epic films it would be horrifying to cut half of it, leave in all the action sequences, slap on some subtitles and release it for international audiences. But John Woo's Red Cliff, which screened in Asia as a five-hour cut, works pretty well in its breakneck two-and-a-half-hour cut for us impatient Americans. All the swift changes in scenery mean it takes forever to figure out who everyone is, and what seem to have started as long dialogue scenes fly by after one or two sentences, but Woo smartly made a movie in which you don't really need to remember the difference between Sun Quan and Liu Bei anyway. It's all about the action, and Woo and his cast of thousands have taken great pains to make sure that side of things is spectacular.
Because I don't feel comfortable recapping the series of events that leads to the central battle, given that I didn't understand them that well, just accept this. There's a bad side, led by warlord Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), that has amassed an immense fleet of warships and collected around the cove Red Cliff. The good side is holed up at Red Cliff, led by warriors Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshia Kaneshiro), who represent an alliance between the remaining Chinese fiefdoms that haven't succumbed to Cao Cao's tyrannical rein. The two leaders butt heads, of course, but eventually assemble a crack team of strategists and fighters who are determined, despite all odds, to defeat the massive army surrounding them.
It starts with land skirmish, in which the soldiers use shields to turn themselves into something resembling a giant tortoise, and leads into water battles and the biggest firestorm you've ever seen in your life. Woo directs the old-fashioned battle scenes with the same kind of kinetic style that made him famous in Hollywood, and at one point Zhou Yu wields two swords the same way Chow Yun-Fat might have holstered two guns in a modern Woo film. There's even a shot using Woo's trademark dove, an endless tracking shot that spans the entire enemy army and seems to shout "You think I overdid the doves in the past? How's this for overkill?" Back in his homeland with seemingly endless resources, Woo is making a big a movie as is humanly possible, and uses all his prodigious action directing skill to make each set piece more spectacular than the last.
The character elements, whether because of the trimmed running time or Woo's typical bad ear for dialogue, suffer in comparison, and even with masters like Tony Leung on the screen, no character emerges beyond their basic shades of good and bad. But something about the movie's energy, or maybe just the sheer visual spectacle, makes it a worthwhile watch anyway. Purists can seek out the five-hour version, while action fans can settle in for the shortened one while knowing they've gotten their money's worth.
Woo has claimed repeatedly in interviews that he's interested in being more than just the action movie guy, but with Red Cliff he proves that he's actually got it in him, tackling the epic scope and complicated political alliances with the same skill he once brought to inner city gangster feuds. He does what the best epic directors do-- he makes it look easy.