If you don’t know anything about Third Century Chinese politics, don’t study up on it before you see Red Cliff. One of the strengths of this vast and bloody dramatization of a decisive battle between feudal warlords, at least for the uninitiated, is not knowing who will win the war, or how. The suspense factor is a plus in this two-and-a-half-hour action epic from director John Woo, who, after a career in violent Hong Kong gangster melodramas and Hollywood thrillers, turns to the mystical, martial-arts spectacle. The characters are mythic, the film’s visual scale humongous, the bloodletting frequent and exhausting, and there’s plenty of opportunity for Woo to show off his trademark explosions.
But Woo sweetens the deal with a handful of commanding actors to help sort out the dense plot, while some remarkable sequences of clever strategies and counter-ploys keep the story galloping along and the viewer engaged. In 208 A.D., ambitious Prime Minister Cao Cao (iconic veteran actor Zhang Fengyi) bullies the weak young Emperor into letting him lead the vast Imperial Army against two rebellious kingdoms in the south. One rebel army is routed when their warlord leader orders them to fall back to protect the evacuation of civilians. But the warlord’s wily strategist, Zhuge Liang (magnetic Sino-Japanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro, from House Of Flying Daggers) strikes up an alliance with the other rebel kingdom, which hinges on Zhuge convincing warrior general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, of 2046 and Lust, Caution) that their joint cause is just, and winnable. Soulful, spiritual Zhou agrees, hoping “this war will prevent future wars.” There’s not much in the way of irony in this straightforward good vs. evil plot, but there are some terrific set pieces: the “tortoise defense;” a tutorial on stealing one hundred thousand enemy arrows using hay bales and fog. There’s a plucky girl-soldier and spy (Wei Zhao), and an elegant wife (Chiling Lin) as well-versed in the Art of War as the Art of Tea. On the other hand, a subplot about a deadly Typhoid epidemic is dropped suddenly with little or no aftermath, and the repetitive battles not only become yawn-inducing, it’s impossible to tell who’s skewering whom. Still, while it’s never as emotionally resonant as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (or even Flying Daggers), sheer visual splendor, and the charismatic Kaneshiro and Leung give the film plenty of class. (R) 148 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. (★★★) —Lisa Jensen. Watch movie trailer >>>