This version of Red Cliff isn't the one split between two, three-hour long films, so as a result the full story of the build-up to the historic battle, as well as the battle itself, has been truncated - truncated, however, into an accessible film in its own right that doesn't spare on the spectacle, or the story behind the events.
Indeed, this version of the film starts with a voiceover that quickly brings you into the landscape of the period; whenever a key character first appears, their name also appears onscreen much like a historical documentary. In other words, rather than presume you know the players and the events anyway, the Western version leads the viewer into the socio-political realities of the Three Kingdoms.
But rather than play like a dramatised documentary (like, say, Kingdom of Heaven), Red Cliff plays the events with an outer layer of mythology, for example presenting Zhuge Liang as a combination of military genius and Confucius, whilst Xiao Qiao takes on an air of Guinevere in the way she's portrayed. By keeping one foot placed outside the realm of historical fact allows the film to take on a mythical guise, which somehow makes the events seem more realistic.
John Woo, meanwhile, reigns in his visual pyrotechnics and instead crafts a more poetic view of the Three Kingdoms, one which sits alongside the world of Hero, or the other wuxia films (i.e. Crouching Tiger... or House of Flying Daggers). The scale in which the film operates is also occasionally breathtaking, as huge as the legendary warriors that populate the film. There are also some moments of serene beauty, such as the mission to steal arrows, balanced with a visually stunning cavalry ambush, and a distinctly un-serene plague outbreak.
The battle itself is where the film really excels, though, as the scale of destruction is impossible to ignore - the sight of a navy blazing in the wind sailing towards the enemy port is one of the cinematic visuals of the year, and the ever-expanding inferno that follows it throughout the battle means there is a sense of constantly building tension in the lead-up to the final showdown between the two forces.
Red Cliff is a true military epic, and one where you have a choice: this cut-down accessible version, or you can take the plunge and see the full version on the special edition DVD.