Subtlety and restraint are not two words that I usually associate with John Woo. He has made a career out of over the top, overly melodramatic action thrillers that more often than not sink under the weight of their own stylistic pretensions (think Mission:Impossible 2). However, every director has one great epic in them, and this is John Woo's masterpiece.
The movie tackles a story based on the the battle of Red Cliff, largely adapted from the Chinese language epic 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms', considered to be one of the most influential works of Chinese Literature. The relationship between the story and actual history is much like the relationship of Shakespeare's works to actual history, in a word 'loose'. It relates the conflict between the three warring kingdoms in the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history.
Red Cliff : Part I largely deals with the forming of alliances and preparations before we actually enter the arena of war. The aggressor is the Prime Minister of the Han Kingdom, Cao Cao, who wants to conquer the two most powerful warlords in southern China. The two warlords, formerly enemies, form an alliance to face a common enemy. We meet the protagonists, the generals and leaders of the three armies. It's a leisurely introduction, verging on the dull at times. This is when I started to realise that this wasn't your typical John Woo movie. The characters weren't the typical caricatures that populate John Woo's movies, they come across as real characters. Incredibly noble and heroic characters, but real characters nevertheless.
The battle scenes are shot in great detail, even as the brutality is kept in check. This isn't the Steven Spielberg style of shooting battles, but it isn't quite superficial Hollywood either. They follow a happy middle ground between the two and it works very well, much like it worked for movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first battle is not the main battle of Red Cliff, just an initial skirmish. It's a 35 minute mini-epic from start to finish, almost in real time on-screen. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie as the action takes a back seat to planning and strategy. In fact, much of both movies is about planning and strategy with the battles as the climatic highlights, not the entire show.
Part I isn't perfect, the pace is slow at the beginning and I was wondering where the movie was going for a while. However, the production values and the acting is excellent throughout. It was almost John Woo was in unfamiliar territory at the start and didn't know how to best go about it. Thankfully, he finds his feet by the half way mark, which sets up things perfectly for the story to take flight in the next part.