After leaving Hollywood, it took Woo five years to make his next film after the appropriately-named Paycheck, with this sprawling epic, that's nearly five hours in length, across two movies. Though, to be blunt, I can see why the Western theatrical version was reduced to 148 minutes, and that might provide a better viewing experience, with less bloat and more focus. Despite concerns of the Emperor, the imperial army, under Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang), heads south to crush the power of local warlords Sun Quan (Chang) and Liu Bei. After the first encounter, Liu sends an emissary (Kaneshiro) to Sun, hoping to broken an alliance which is his only hope of resisting the nunerically-superior Imperial forces. After some delicate negotiations, a deal is agreed, and their forces set up camp at Red Cliff, with Cao Cao and his army on the opposite shore. The second film covers the strategic fencing between the two sides, as they seek to gain a tactical advantage, and the final battle when the two armies finally collide.
No arguing the spectacle involved here, with some of the grandest battle sequences I've seen in quite a while, and a nice mix of live-action and CGI that's effectively used. In particular, an amazing shot at the end of part one, where a carrier pigeon is followed, as it flies from one camp to the other, which is made of pure awesome. The real problem is much more the lack of emotional content: the characters are largely uninteresting, and just as they move their forces around like chess pieces, it feels like Woo is moving them in a similar way. There's very little genuine "heart" here: there's a little subplot of humanity, where an undercover spy in Cao Cao's camp befriends one of the soldiers there, and that's the only bit where I felt a real, human connection. Otherwise, the best section is likely the first hour of part two, with some smart tactical actions on both sides, that make for engrossing viewing. Then, we go back to large number of barely distinguishable soldiers swinging swords at each other for long periods. It's safe to say that the appeal of this runs out a great deal earlier than five hours.