John Woo’s lavish period piece recreates events leading up to a legendary battle at the close of the Han dynasty in 208 A.D. Cao Cao (Zhang), the empire’s self-appointed prime minister, rules his country with an iron fist. However, several formidable enemies unite against him when he decides to invade territory controlled by rebel leaders Liu Bei (You) and Sun Quan (Chen). Defiant, they call on strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) and warrior Zhou Yu (Leung) to help plan their defense. The intricacies of war and political intrigue gradually play out over the film’s two parts, leading up to the massive battle of Red Cliff.
Reportedly the most expensive movie ever made in China, the budget shows in every scene of this grandiose historical epic, from the sumptuous sets and costumes to the thousands of horses and extras in its expertly choreographed battle scenes. The movie is not all spectacle, though: its characters do show their human sides (Leung is particularly good), and the film examines the nature of power and conquest with a welcome degree of subtlety and intelligence. If you like your movies big and smart, jump off this “Cliff.”