The latest picture from John Woo isn’t especially Woosome—not if you remember his delirious gun hugs from The Killer and Face/Off. Hong Kong’s most impressive émigré has returned to China to make one of those massive, color-coordinated imperial epics, the kind that Olympics mastermind Zhang Yimou (Hero) specializes in. Arrows soar through the air in computerized clouds and warlords scowl with somber dignity. Still, one misses the presence of Woo’s longtime go-to guy, Chow Yun-Fat (who bailed out of this epic after three days of grouchy shooting), as well as the humor and economy that Woo learned the hard way in Hollywood.
The plot, a porridge of 3rd-century Han Dynasty power plays, is sleep-inducing merely to recount. Suffice it to say that prime minister Cao Cao (Zhang) persuades his boss, the emperor, to declare war on their southern neighbors. Beards are stroked thoughtfully. For all his brilliance with choreography, Woo is flummoxed by the thousands of actual human extras, though there’s no denying his commitment to the finer points of battle tactics (yawn). A dove flies high above the war zone; once upon a time, Woo knew how to get a shiver out of such signature spastic flapping. Here, it’s strictly business.
Cast and crew