Buoyed by a string of military victories, power-hungry prime minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) sets his sights on the lush, fragile kingdom of Wu. But he’s reckoned without the strategic brilliance of Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who lure Cao Cao’s army into the titular gorge, setting the stage for a desperate last-ditch battle.
In Asia, ‘Red Cliff’ was released in two parts, totalling almost five hours. At half that length, this international cut ditches personal interplay and political intrigue in favour of battles and bloodshed. Not that Woo dumps character altogether: aided by a fine cast, he ensures that the central figures are distinct and memorable.
But the film’s focus is on spectacle, and here Woo delivers, if not in quite the majestic fashion one might have anticipated. Grand set-pieces abound, from a stunning hilltop battle to the climactic fire-and-brimstone bloodbath, but there’s little we’ve not seen before. Nevertheless, as old-fashioned mythic entertainment, ‘Red Cliff’ succeeds in solid, sometimes magnificent fashion.