Red Cliff was probably my favorite movie of 2008 … only other possibility would be Man on Wire. It took us several months of maybe-perhaps-ok before we finally got around to watching Red Cliff 2, and it looks like John Woo is going to be sitting atop my list again this year. I didn’t say much about the first installment, so I’ll stretch out a bit now. I should note that I haven’t seen the version playing now in American theaters, which edits the two parts down into one movie.
There are two essential items going on here, the strategy preparing for battle, and the battle itself (as I recall, it was much the same in Part One). I’m not a fan of “war strategy” movies, but this stuff is fascinating. It takes place in the early 3rd century, so the weapons aren’t very advanced. But they are put to ingenious uses, and the overall strategies on both sides are interesting mostly because of the point/counterpoint feel. The leaders on both sides know how war is “supposed” to be fought, and there’s a bit of game theory going on, as first one side and then another attempts to figure out how the other will vary from the norm, so that they can themselves vary in a useful manner. The result would please the A-Team’s Hannibal … as you watch in admiration, you think “I love it when a plan comes together.” The final battle sequence is as good as any you’ve seen. The only problem is that we’re getting aesthetic pleasure from the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and while there are brief moments when we’re reminded of the deceased, for the most part our reaction is more “Wow!” than “poor fellow.” This was true in Woo’s HK action films, of course, but the scale here is far beyond that of a movie like Hard Boiled. Still, watching Woo put all the pieces together in such a way that the audience can clearly follow the action mirrors the way the warlords put the pieces of their plans together.
I don’t know enough about the history being told here to say anything with confidence about how close to reality Woo comes, but I don’t know that it matters. I also don’t know how the two films reflect on contemporary China … Woo made his name in Hong Kong, left before the handover, made a gazillion dollars in Hollywood, then returned home to make this remarkable epic that I’m sure says something about how things are today. But Red Cliff and Red Cliff 2 are magnificent, stirring films … they are as inventive as his earlier heroic bloodshed movies, on a much greater scale. 10/10.