Pared down from two feature-length halves, the composite edition of RED CLIFF is 148 minutes, and something awesome happens in every one of them. Having pursued the project for many years, John Woo invests care in every scene, and the thing plays like a highlight reel containing all of his favorite tropes and motifs: you have a lone fighter squaring off against a platoon of oncoming bad guys with a child in his arms; you have a Mexican standoff (with swords instead of the usual .45s); and, of course, you have a superabundance of doves (particularly in a spectacular flying cam shot that Woo must have wanted to put in a movie for decades).
Adapted from the history and the folklore surrounding a famous battle toward the end of the Han Dynasty, the composite film doesn't feel like a compromise. The battle scenes are lengthy and downright awe-inspiring, but there's plenty of breathing space for Woo's talented cast to create vivid but quieter character moments, from Takeshi Kaneshiro's quiet scheming as consigliere Zhuge Liang to the perfect romantic equilibrium between Xiao Qiao (newcomer Chi-Ling Lin) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). The key love scene of the latter two perfectly meshes the romantic and martial themes that Woo has pursued across his career; if nothing else it delivers lines from Sun Tzu with a no doubt unprecedented passion.