With its marathon war scenes and grandiose visual effects, "Red Cliff" is big-budget Chinawood at its most ambitious. The great action filmmaker John Woo, directing his first massively scaled mainland Chinese epic, stages thrilling battles and gives unusual attention to matters of strategy. With a nod to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," battles here are won by outsmarting your enemies, not outnumbering them.

What's lacking is a sense of context. In East Asia, the Battle of Red Cliff is as well known as D-Day, Gettysburg or Waterloo. The historical characters are iconic. For those not up to speed on 208 A.D. China, it's a bit opaque. Especially since the Asian version of "Red Cliff," a five-hour, two-part release, comes to us reshaped into a single 150-minute opus.

The compelling emotion that marks the best Woo movies is AWOL. The pacing is choppy, with most of the human moments lopped off. Is the Han emperor the good guy? Or should we cheer the rebellious opposition warlords? And what the heck is a viceroy? Scowling generals stroke their whiskers, alliances are forged, and an elaborate tea ceremony holds the fate of China in the balance while we ponder which side to root for.

Here's the score card. Power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi, from "Farewell My Concubine") has bullied the weakling emperor into sending a vast fleet and army against two independent southern kingdoms. Cao not only wants those territories, but he covets the fetching bride (Taiwanese model Chiling Lan) of Zhao Yu (Tony Leung of "Lust, Caution"). Joining Zhao to oppose Cao is Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kabeshiro, "House of Flying Daggers"), a brilliant tactician who bonds with his new ally over their shared love of music. Their partnership is forged in a jam session.

This truncated version piles on the bombast and fanfare. There are countless battle flags flapping, literal armies of extras, and computer-imagery clouds of arrows blocking out the sun. Foot soldiers foil cavalry charges by blinding the riders with mirror-polished shields or assuming the tortoise formation, a mazelike configuration from which there is no escape. There is plenty of one-vs.-many battlefield action as skilled warriors singlehandedly bring down platoons of enemy soldiers.

Woo choreographs the carnage with authority, but he really shines in the moments when the southerners outwit their enemies. At one point they run out of arrows and trick the Han forces into giving away all of theirs. Genius.

Yet you come away from the film with powerful visual memories, but a void where the passion ought to go. When the battle is over, one sage trots out the old chestnut -- surely a cliché even in 208 -- "There are no winners here." And that's how it feels. The film's prestigious origins and late-fall release notwithstanding, it leaves you with that hollow summer blockbuster feeling. Colin Covert • 612-673-7186