The first facet of Red Cliff that harbingers the grandeur of the film is the fastidious attention to detail placed on its sets and costume designs. It will remind many of The Last Emperor, The House of the Flying Daggers, Hero, etc. Red Cliff’s drama is steeped in reality and history. Its Red Cliff’s efficient, brutal fights scenes, dipped in what some might call the fantastic, that make the film stand out and push it forward. The battle scenes all have something unique about them that separate them from each other, unlike some of those found in Braveheart.
Red Cliff is set in Xuchang, China, in the summer of AD 208, and derives its plot from the circumstances surrounding the historical Battle of Red Cliffs (Battle of Chibi). These were military engagements that occurred between the twilight of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms time period (AD 220 – 280) in China. Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengi), who is responsible for starting the conflict by manipulating the young and impressionable Emperor Xian (Wang Ning) in the Imperial Court of the Eastern Han Dynasty, is easily the most charismatic character in Red Cliff. He is forceful, knows how to talk with people and always seems to know what to do in a situation. Almost all this can be said of Chief Military Advisor/Strategist Zhu-ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a retainer of Emperor Xian’s uncle Liu Bei (You Yang) who opposes Cao Cao and his war machine.
In Red Cliff, Lui Bei and Cao Cao both have courageous battle thralls waging war for them but none is showcased more or shown to be as brave as one of Lui Beu’s generals, Zhao Yun (Hu Jun). As with Yun’s fight scenes, the costumes and sets in Red Cliff, almost as much attention is paid to its dialog and situations between battles. In many of these scenes, characters are jocking for position, the upper-hand, pairing, jousting during conversations. So in a very real way, you are sometimes watching a fencing match between onscreen characters, reminiscent in many ways to the conversation between Bob Hauk and S.D. “Snake” Plissken at the beginning of Escape from New York. These “fencing matches” in Red Cliff range in topics from convincing others of their worthiness and to encouraging the disenchanted.
In no scene in Red Cliff is this more evident than when Liang goes to the court of Sun Quan (Chang Chen) in southern China to convince him to join forces with Lui Bei after Bei is defeated at the Battle of Changban. Liang exhibits and exercises his verbal dexterity in his attempts to persuade Quan to join with Lui Bei and go to war against Cao Cao and his military juggernaut. Besides the great moments of dialog like this and the combat sequences in Red Cliff, there are more than a few other notable scenes to be found. One is a tiger hunt where are certain character finds his courage and another is when Cao Cao uses his imagination and the viewer glimpses his true motivation for starting the war.
The moments of levity found within Red Cliff are mostly contributed by Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), sister of Sun Quan. Shangxiang is Quan’s confidant, the one that gives him unbiased advice. She is one of the people responsible for inspiring Sun, making him see the truth of certain events in his past and the present. She is also a student of pressure points and is not afraid to use that knowledge when she deems it necessary.
John Woo’s Red Cliff is one of the better paced, finely orchestrated epics to be produced in recent years. It is far better than 300 and Spartacus but for all of its strengths, is not as good as Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut, the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur or the aforementioned Braveheart. The audience is not blasted with imagery over plot and substance like 300 with Red Cliff. If anything in Red Cliff, the action takes a back seat to the drama, something far rarer, almost like this film.