After the cheesy fun of Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996) and the peak of the deranged Face/Off in 1997, Chinese director John Woo’s English language pictures began a precipitative drop off in quality, with the OK-ish MI: II (2000). dull WWII flick Windtalkers (2002) and tedious sci-fi flick Paycheck (2003) all signifying a talent in decline.
But a return to his homeland heralded a refreshing of creative juices, as Woo delved into ancient Chinese history with his epic two-parter based on the Battle of Red Cliffs (AD 208–209) and the events surrounding end of the Han dynasty.
Zhang Fengyi as bad guy Cao Cao
Woo admitted he took liberties with recorded events to increase engagement with the characters- and in this he succeeded mightily, with heroes and feisty female warriors to cheer on and villains to jeer. The battles are always choreographed superbly and are far more original in the way they play out than the usual movie trope of massed armoured ranks smashing into each other until one side comes out on top.
They’re also some great scenes between the characters, played with wit and understatement. And a terrific musical duel:
The cast is excellent and although some of the supporting roles are played a little too broadly, the leads are uniformly superb, including Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, and Lin Chi-ling.
Tony Leung as Zhou Yu
NOTE: unless you have a phobia about subtitles, avoid the dubbed version so you can appreciate the sound of the actors voices. And don’t watch the truncated single movie version.
The picture also boasts a stirring main theme, by Taro Iwashiro: