Here's a theory as to why director John Woo's classic late-'80s Hong Kong action movies worked so well: Everything was small. Not Chow Yun-Fat's charisma, or the way he pivoted and dived and blazed away with a pair of automatics in A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, but Chow pivoted and dived and blazed away in tiny apartments and hallways, firing at foes mere feet, or even inches, away, making the action all the more explosive. As Woo's movies became more successful and won bigger budgets, he staged bigger set pieces (e.g. Hard Boiled's over-the-top hospital shoot-out), but the most dazzling sequences were the ones that strained against more modest physical limits (e.g. Hard Boiled's opening tea house takedown). Woo's shift to Hollywood brought even bigger budgets and ever more grandiose action, though arguably the most memorable sequence from any of his increasingly dispiriting U.S. movies is a shoot-out in Face/Off that takes place entirely in a child's bedroom.
There is nothing small about Red Cliff, Woo's first Chinese movie since 1992. Even cut down for American audiences from the two-part, nearly five-hour Chinese, it clocks in at 148 minutes. Shooting in China allowed Woo to afford to field thousands of extras to portray the troops of the various massive armies that collided in the historic Battle of Red Cliffs along the Yangtze River in the third century A.D. Enormous fleets of ships, a series of huge battles, enough pyrotechnics to be visible from space—the scale here is rarely less than gargantuan. But while Red Cliff (Magnolia DVD and Blu-ray version) wows with sheer spectacle, you know what they say about more vs. less.
Plot-wise, warlord Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) intimidates the browbeaten emperor into sanctioning his invasion of the lands below the Yangtze, ostensibly to suppress a pair of rebellious regimes. As Cao's mammoth army presses south, the sparring regimes reluctantly agree to unite and fight back, spearheaded by the leadership of Zhou Yu (Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung) and aided by the advice of wily strategist Zhuge Liang (House of Flying Daggers' Takeshi Kaneshiro). It is eventually revealed, however, that Cao went to all this trouble largely because of his long obsession with Xiao Qiao (Lin Chiling), Zhou's lovely wife.
That last small bit of seemingly ahistorical personal melodrama appears designed to help give Red Cliff some human scale amid all the outsized maneuvering and the supersized cast of characters. (Woo's best movies tend to focus on two characters linked but opposed, another way small works to his advantage.) But most American viewers go into this story lacking any knowledge of or connection to late Han Dynasty society, and we also miss out on literally hours of context-establishing/fleshing-out footage cut for the domestic version (Magnolia also released the full Chinese cut on both formats, perhaps a subject for further research). Leung and Kaneshiro's undeniable appeal as protagonists aside, the actual drama of Red Cliff is surprisingly inert and uninvolving.
Which leaves Woo's visual handling of the various action sequences to keep your interest, and he holds nothing back. Zooms, whip pans, and the occasional wipe compete for your eyeballs with slow-mo hand-to-hand, arterial spray sparklingly back-lit in the sun, and an arsenal of billowing proto-firebombs. Maybe the most arresting scene involves what amounts to a human lawnmower made out of shields and spears. Whether it makes sense or not, Woo often reduces the battles to primary characters dueling a ring of anonymous bad guys, a la every kung-fu flick ever made, but by the same token he gets good mileage out of stolen moments with Zang Jinsheng as a brawling Mifune-esque general who at one point basically tackles a couple of cavalrymen to the ground, horses and all. By the end of Red Cliff, almost everything you see is wrapped in walls of flame, at which point it's a little hard to care what's burning and what's not. Sure is fiery, though.
Unfortunately, most of Woo's classic Hong Kong films have been out of print in this country for years, fueling a healthy online trade in bootlegs and exorbitantly priced original DVDs. Hard Boiled finally re-emerged as a legit release in 2007, and now the Weinstein Company has released Woo's 1989 The Killer on DVD and Blu-ray. No better introduction to Woo's world, in all its excesses and glories, exists.
Chow plays a dapper but stoic Hong Kong hitman who accidentally blinds an innocent nightclub singer (Sally Yeh) during a job. Since this is a Woo movie, Chow's titular assassin is a moralist who vows to stand by and protect his victim, even as a wily police inspector (Danny Lee) and the minions of a crime boss who now wants his former freelancer silenced close in.
In truth, there's nothing small about The Killer but the sets. Woo's traditional twists on male friendship and following a code in a world without one blossom into epic melodrama, with Chow's character impassively pumping boatloads of pistol ammunition into dozens of anonymous baddies and then suffering grandiosely over his fateful misdeed against the sniveling singer. But Woo's style is so smooth and accomplished, so audacious and detailed, that you get sucked into both the action and the unrestrained goop of the story. At this distance, there are also pleasures to be found in the film's tres '80s style, from the dinky synth score to Lee's hideous suit. Revisiting the rigor and extravagance of The Killer reminds you how close Woo was to having Michael Mann's career, as well as why he doesn't.