Fengyi Zhang plays Chancellor Cao Cao, who must crush the rebels. (Magnolia Pictures)
As big as "Red Cliff" is -- and it's huge -- it's actually even bigger.
That's because there are two versions of director John Woo's second-century Chinese war epic. The shorter (148-minute) version of the film, being reviewed here, plays the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor this weekend. The full 271-minute version -- which was presented as two films in Asia -- comes to the Detroit Film Theater on Jan. 15.
One of the original hot names in Hong Kong action cinema, Woo came to Hollywood in the '90s and enjoyed some big time success with "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible II." Returning to China to do "Red Cliff," it's obvious he took some Hollywood sensibilities with him. "Red Cliff" is the story of a momentous battle fought between warring factions toward the end of the Han Dynasty.
There's Chancellor Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), hoping to crush opposition to the emperor he manipulates. Leading much of that opposition is Liu Bei (Yong You), aided by his crafty, alliance-building strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). The most important alliance built involves Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), Grand Viceroy to another leader.
Soon enough the opposition has gathered 30,000 troops. Which sounds nice: Except Cao Cao commands more than 100,000 as well as a vast navy.
So you've got the scrappy rebels up against the power-hungry establishment figure. Throw in some romance, the theft of 100,000 arrows (a fun sequence), much intrigue and more fireballs and battlefield slaughter than has likely ever been committed to film, and you've got a bloody turning point in Chinese history as well as one pounding action flick.
Woo's challenge here involves goosing a classic Chinese sense of tone with modern sensibilities.
He doesn't rely on wire gimmickry as much as many other recent Chinese directors, moving with more direct physicality, and although he can be as painterly as some of his contemporaries, he still delivers the gritty feel that first earned him accolades.
And Woo's battle scenes, while still using standard heroes and villains choreography, are orchestrated with perfect pitch.
The result is an awfully big and powerful movie, even in abbreviated form.