Was it worth the six-month wait? The answer is a resounding affirmative. John Woo’s second and final segment of the epic battle extravaganza “Red Cliff” picks up with a monstrous, 800,000-strong army led by invading warlord Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) about to close in on Jiangdong, the province of young prince Sun Quan (Chang Chen). The closing scene of Part I had Woo’s signature scene of a white pigeon flying out over the sea. In the screening room there had erupted a collective sigh of deep satisfaction and anguished anticipation. Couldn’t we fast forward time somehow and see the sequel, like, five minutes later?
In Part I, Cao Cao realized that Sun’s army is a force to be reckoned with. So, now he has reassembled his troops on the water — the opening shows Cao Cao’s naval fleet of 2,000 ships floating just outside the port of Jiangdong, and facing the shore of the natural granite fortress known as Red Cliff. Sun’s defending army consists of a mere 30,000 troops and 100 ships. True, the prince has his trusted general, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), and genius military consultant, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), but Cao Cao believes numbers are everything, and he’s so certain of a quick, landslide victory that he organizes a soccerlike game so his troops can relax.
In the fortress, Sun is in the clutches of prebattle anxiety while Zhuge smiles into the distance and waves his fan. They both know the chips are stacked against them in every way, but Zhuge repeatedly tells the prince and Zhou that “the important thing is to stay cool. A hot head will eventually lead to defeat.”
And as Zhuge’s strategies are gradually revealed, we see that Part II is an extensive examination of the art of war. There’s very little of the one-on-one, martial-arts dances that had defined the action sequences of Part I and the fighting shifts to a grander scale as fireballs light up the night sky, explosives go off with incredulous frequency (given that the story is set in the 2nd century) and as for the body count, the expression “dying in droves” is a major understatement. If men aren’t dying from arrows and bombs made from molten metal and fish oil then they’re vomiting into bowls and dying like flies from an Ebola-like virus.
But the main cast of characters thrive as the story literally kicks them into battle mode. Before, Sun had been easily swayed and insecure, but here he morphs into a formidable warrior with ample brawn. Zhou sheds part of his gentlemanly personality and displays a tricky manipulativeness. Even his beautiful and fragile wife, Xiao Qiao (Ching Lin) contributes to the war effort, venturing out of the fortress and into the enemy camp hoping to distract and confuse Cao Cao. The warmonger falls right into her trap. Cao Cao, so brilliant and cunning in Part I, makes some disasterous strategic mistakes and ends up jeopardizing victory.
The Battle of Red Cliff is one of the crucial chapters in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (written by Luo Guanzhong in the mid-14 century), which is a landmark historical work in China. In Asia, it has influenced generations of scholars, artists and soldiers much in the same way as Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
Woo’s lifelong wish had been to adapt the Red Cliff chapter onto the screen and he chose this project to mark his return to China after nearly 20 years of filmmaking in the United States. If Part I had been an introduction to China in the late 2nd century (and a bit staid and leisurely paced because of it), Part II is pure Woo: He gives all — flesh, blood and probably a chunk of his sanity — in the name of action entertainment. Apparently, some audiences in Asia deemed the sequel as too entertaining, giving the film an alien, mainstream American sheen. But then Woo is one of the forces that whipped Hollywood action into the shape it is today. As an auteur with milestone works like “Mission Impossible II” (2000) and “Face Off” (1997) surely Woo has earned the bones to dispense with boundaries and show us once and for all, how it’s really done.