John Woo’s new spectacle is packed with action 

John Woo — the ace Hong Kong action auteur whom Hollywood snatched up and then didn’t know what to do with — has returned to Asian cinema with a bang or, rather, with the whiz of flying arrows, the clop of hooves and other forms of expanded verve.

The cause for note is “Red Cliff,” Woo’s vigorously entertaining Chinese war spectacle.

Drawing from the classic Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the nonfiction “Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms,” Woo and three co-writers present the events preceding a famous Chinese battle. A crazy but somehow workable mix of historical drama and action-fantasy takes hold.

In the year 208, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), a power-hungry imperial general, launches a war against two smaller kingdoms.

In order to survive, the two kingdoms — represented by scientific military strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and brave viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) — unite and strategize.

They try to outthink the ruthless Cao Cao and, despite their lesser numbers, win battles.

Additional players include a spirited warrior princess (Zhao Wei) and, adding melodrama, Zhang Yu’s tea-making wife (Chiling Lin), whom Cao Cao covets.

If you want profound war drama, rent “Ran.” With its stylized violence and CGI armadas, Woo’s film doesn’t convey battlefield truths, and the battle scenes are so frequent that they start feeling repetitive.

The actors are charismatic, but the screenplay allows them little opportunity to give their characters dimension. Only the brilliant Leung (reuniting with Woo 17 years after “Hard Boiled”) delivers much nuance.

Yet Woo — who has said that, with this movie, he hopes to prove that China can make an “epic film of the same caliber as a Hollywood production” — has indeed made a big, broad, physical, visual, captivating pleaser with a Chinese story, Asian talent and his own stylistic stamp (symbolic doves, and echoes of “Hard Boiled” and “Face/Off” included).

He displays less dexterity on this grander canvas than in the grittier fare that established him as a stylist, but Woo reveals maestro qualities that are sufficient to keep us immersed as he coordinates horses, ships, soldiers and, most pivotally, weather conditions.

The material involving military strategies — a “tortoise formation” stands out — transcends mere entertainment. The fiery climax at Red Cliffs caps things off with excitement.

The film, by the way, is a shortened version of a five-hour, two-part Asian release. And while it would benefit from even more trimming, Woo generally achieves the sweep and gravity necessary to justify the 2½-hour running time.

Red Cliff ***

Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Fengyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhao Wei
Written by John Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu
Directed by John Woo
Rated R
Running time 2 hours 28 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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