John Woo's Red Cliff 2 赤壁 - 決戰天下 is rescued by Zhang Fengyi's Cao Cao
Before starting my review of RED CLIFF 2, let me tell you some of my thoughts on RED CLIFF 1, which I watched on DVD back in October.
I found RED CLIFF 1 somewhat entertaining, after suffering string after string of mediocre Hollywood films by John Woo, with the bad taste of PAYCHECK still fresh in my mouth, my expectations were low. So without any expectations, I enjoyed RED CLIFF 1. The manly (and somewhat homoerotic) bonding between Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a John Woo trademark, remains quite amusing, Zhang Fengyi's turn as the charismatic baddie Cao Cao is the best performance in the film, the action scenes are big-scale and rather fun. In the end, RED CLIFF 1 was entertaining enough for me to not give RED CLIFF 2 a pass.
It's hard for me to decide whether RED CLIFF 2 is an improvement over its predecessor, or whether it fulfilled the promises shown by RED CLIFF 1. There are some really epic-scaled battle scenes that I liked, and an unexpected John Woo-style Mexican Standoff at the climatic fight scene that made me think of the numerous parodies he had spawned with his older films, which made me giggle. Zhang Fengyi reinforced my belief that his performance is the best in the RED CLIFF films, and the female characters played by Lin Zhiling and Zhao Wei are actually given a bit more to do, which is revolutionary... for a John Woo film.
I enjoyed Kaneshiro and Tony Leung's performances, being who they are, of course they're solid. But I'm probably one of the rare few who think that they are a little miscast in the film. Maybe they are too recognizable, thus I was unable to think of their characters as Zhuge Liang or Zhou Yu... to me they are just Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung... with costumes.
I've imagined what would have happened if Chow Yun Fat hadn't dropped out of the film during pre-production. If Chow Yun Fat hadn't thought that doing DRAGON BALL is a better career choice, he would've been playing Zhou Yu, and Tony Leung would've been playing Zhuge Liang, and that might have been a better fit. Somehow, for me, Tony Leung's martial arts skills in RED CLIFF feels less convincing than Chow Yun Fat's in CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON or CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (I guess Chow probably believed that his martial arts skills are more suited for DRAGON BALL). I winced a little when I saw Zhou Yu practicing with his sword, and frowned a little when he was cutting opponents down in the ending. Hu Jun's Zhao Zilong was believable as a badass though.
Because of the problems I have with the Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu characters, I wanted to see more of the other characters, like Chang Chen's Sun Quan, or Hu Jun's Zhao Zilong, and the rest of Liu Bei's gang (whose appearances in this film are quite brief). More character development, more 'moments' that can add to the story. But I'm probably expecting something from a different movie by a different director. Hmm.
The film, I feel, is a little inconsistent in tone, there are some comedic scenes, both intentional and unintentional, that make the viewing experience more enjoyable, but at some parts, I started wondering whether things had gone a bit too silly, and by trying so hard, Woo had sacrificed some of the narrative potential and pathos for the film. But still, most of Woo's films in the 80s and early 90s were like that. (BETTER TOMORROW 2, HARD-BOILED and ONCE A THIEF being the most obvious) In many ways, we are getting the John Woo of old, which is a good thing, depending on whether you feel his style is slightly outdated, or just entertainingly retro. For me, it's a bit of both.
I don't think it's a masterpiece, I'm not sure whether to recommend anyone to watch it either. It all depends on whether you liked RED CLIFF 1 or not. Even so, I still think that the RED CLIFF films are John Woo's best works since... FACE/OFF. (not a fan of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2) I look forward to seeing Woo's next film... as long as he's staying in China.
RED CLIFF 2 trailer
What do you guys think of this film? And Red Cliff 1?