I am usually the film buff that enjoys challenges. The word challenge in the film world almost always means long. I have not shied away from three-hour movies where nothing happens (except the internal turmoil of the main character) or marathoning movies linked by a tenuous subject matter. After reaching the end of a particularly difficult (long) movie feat, I always wonder why I do this to myself. Why must I put hurdles between myself and executing a good review? The inevitable result of these bouts of self-reflection, I purposefully immerse myself in small, short movies that produce more material in a shorter time period. This always ends up biting me in the butt. As it did with Red Cliff, the shorter version of a very long movie directed by the penultimate action director, John Woo.
Red Cliff dramatizes an important battle in China’s ancient history. Cao Cao is a brutal leader, hell-bent on uniting all of the kingdoms through force. A couple of kingdoms, Xu and East Wu, resist this forced unification by joining forces and conceiving of cunning ways to cut down Cao Cao’s massive army. There are many long speeches that are executed while wearing ridiculous hats, gazing out at beautiful landscapes and of course brutal action sequences that proves that Woo will always be a master action filmmaker.
This movie came in two different versions. Either I could watch the entire five-hour uncut version of the story or I could watch the two and a half hour truncated version made so as to not confuse America’s feeble brains. I chose the truncated version because I am familiar with Woo’s filmmaking. He loves to fill his movies with needless action and weird subplots that don’t necessarily make sense to the main thrust of the film. I also chose the truncated version because it was streaming on Netflix and I needed another movie to review at the last second. In other words, I was being lazy. This laziness resulted in frustration. I never knew exactly what the motivations were from each character. Characters seemed to have introduced and then virtually disappeared from the action until the epic final battle. We see events happen with little to no explanation. But would this have been any better with the extended cut? Instead of a coherent story, Woo was content with just watching these men and women do fancy tricks and behead numerous fake people. He pauses the plot at will, opting to show the main character practice his sweet jump kicks instead of doing anything that matters. This just seems like he would have just diverted the plot longer stretches of time than he did here. There are some individual scenes that are breathtaking to watch and effective on me as a viewer, but once those scenes end, we go back into a convoluted back story that makes no sense. There is no strong connective tissue between the great showpiece. I think that Woo was given too much freedom with this movie. He works best under some restriction whether it is a language barrier, a low-budget or a studio assigned movie, he really shines. But the moment he is given as much money as he will ever need, top stars at his disposal (Tony Leung in particular) and an unlimited running time, he falls apart and relies on his action too much. Action is not what a good and coherent epic make.