Directed by: John Woo
Premise: In Third century China, the leaders of the southern kingdoms face an invasion by the larger and more powerful northern kingdom. The leaders of the southern kingdoms forge an alliance and gather their armies at the fortress at Red Cliff to stage a final showdown.
What Works: Red Cliff is a good looking and stylishly accomplished epic. Something this film does very well is to convey a sense of geography both throughout the ongoing staging and troop movements and within the battles. This makes the action scenes much more than just a collection of swords and horses and gives the battles a narrative shape. The story of Red Cliff is paced very well with nearly constant action and unlike some of John Woo’s other directorial efforts there is a realistic restraint on the staging of the battle scenes that makes them much more credible.
What Doesn’t: While Red Cliff looks good there is not much substance to it. Exceptional films in this genre, like Hero, Gladiator, or Braveheart create characters whose relationships and conflicts inform the epic scope and give meaning and value to the battles and political maneuvers. Red Cliff has little or no character work and the battle scenes, as impressive as they are, lack an overall goal. Exactly what the characters are fighting for is never clear or at least never gets beyond the abstract. And when the film reaches its climax with the final showdown between the leaders of the three kingdoms, the finale lacks the emotional or narrative weight that it ought to possess.
Bottom Line: Red Cliff is a great big epic spectacle. The film does not add much to the genre and its characters are very two-dimensional but those who enjoy this kind of sword and shield film will want to check it out.
Note: The version of Red Cliff released theatrically in the United States is a condensed version of a longer, two-part version released in Asia.
Episode: #267 (December 6, 2009)