Saw this close to a year ago and wasn't impressed at all -- in fact, it made me sad.
I was one of Woo's biggest champions back in the mid-80's and 90's when I wrote my Chinatown Beat column for Michael Helms' wonderful FATAL VISIONS magazine. I still think Bullet in the Head, A Better Tomorrow, Just Heroes, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled are masterpieces. I have countless DVD's, LD's, and VHS versions of all the director's works. My love for these films will never evaporate.
Watching Red Cliff, I found myself bored. So incredibly bored. For some reason, Woo has gotten it into his head that endless battle sequences are entertaining. Why have one hundred warriors when you can create a million more in a computer? Why shoot fifty flaming arrows when you can shoot fifty thousand?
That's it, I'm done with "epic" battle sequences. They're so repetitive and boring and uninteresting. It started with Troy and the Rings films and it hasn't stopped since. Half the action pics out there are just collections of battle sequences that go on and on and on and signify nothing but noise and chaos.
Red Cliff, apparently, has a story, and, according to John Woo, fascinating characters. Really? I didn't care. I felt twenty times removed from everybody in the movie. The arch, stuffy style applied to the so-called drama left me cold. Impossible, right, with actors like Tony Leung? Apparently not. I wanted everybody to die so the movie would end.
Woo's best films bleed with emotion because the characters are the focus. There is plenty of action, sure, but within the action (especially in Just Heroes, The Killer, and Bullet...) the characters are still the point of the movie, and their journeys are fascinating.
In Red Cliff, Woo tries to dazzle us and assault us and overwhelm us with non-stop "action" (which now equals high end computer game graphics) because he's convinced we want that. This approach is akin to a baby screaming into your ear for the entirety of a flight from LA to Melbourne. Half an hour in the air with that baby is enough. Three hours is a nightmare, and you want to kill the kid and kill yourself. Woo is so impressed with Big and Epic and Long and Loud it makes me wonder what drugs he's taking these days.
Scenes in which the camera/computer follows a perfect arrow on its perfect course towards a perfect target lack any sense of spontaneity or unpredictability. Everything is so carefully staged and executed, it's like watching a cartoon. I hate it with a passion. And I never thought I'd say that about the major elements of a John Woo movie. Doesn't Woo recall what made his Hong Kong movies so great? Doesn't he remember why he fell in love with the work of Jean Pierre Melville? It was the characters, John, the themes, the focus on feelings, the alienation, the war within themselves.
Every time I read an interview with Woo these days, he talks about future epics, thousands of extras, huge budgets, and how getting Red Cliff financed was a cinch. Seems the Chinese investors fell over themselves to throw money at this overstuffed epic.
I officially hate CG-enhanced, epic fight scenes, and I no longer await the next John Woo film with an anxiousness once reserved for Santa.