Hero contains everything I could want in an Eastern action movie: Stylish, superhuman battles; characters driven by revenge, justice, and desire; a visionary would-be emperor who commands vast armies; tragic lovers, betrayals, intrigue… what could possibly be wrong with this movie? A truly hideous theme, for one thing.
Hero tells the tale of a nameless master warrior (Jet Li) who hunts down and eliminates three of the most skilled assassins in all the kingdoms of China: Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen). He is allowed a meeting with the King of Qin (Daoming Chen), a bloody tyrant who is attempting to unite the six kingdoms of China under one rule by relentless warfare. This privilege is a rare reward as this tyrant has faced many assassins on his quest to conquer everything.
As Nameless tells his tales of vanquishing the king’s assassin foes, he is granted more power and money, and allowed to sit closer and closer to the king all by his lonesome self (nice little contrivance, there). All is not as it seems, as the king calls him on one of his stories, stating it couldn’t possibly be true. As the story unravels – I mean unfolds, we discover the true nature of the nameless warrior, the king, and the assassins with whom he fought.
Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by this slight story. All the critics and review blurbs compare this movie favorably with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but that movie had something that Hero lacked: characters for whom I felt deeply. Crouching Tiger had strong characters that had understandable motivations no matter how wrong their actions seemed. On the other hand, Hero's characters seem to represent different ideas but lacked few qualities that would let me identify with them. Nameless, for instance, was guiding by a strong sense of revenge that I could relate to. However, his actions later on in the movie seemed inexplicable to me because he seemed to betray his motives for no reason I could relate to. Saying more would be a spoiler.
It was more than undeveloped characters that let this movie down - sure the visuals were striking but they struck me as predominantly pretentious. I could almost hear Yimou Zhang’s self-congratulations over how cool some of the scenes looked. Many scenes were in slow motion, everyone wore costumes color-coordinated with their surroundings, wind was blowing through everyone’s hair (even indoors), etc. If I could correlate this style of filmmaking to a western director, it would have to be Michael Bay (except there were no gratuitous helicopter flybys). I don’t completely dislike the movie, because unlike Mr. Bay, the director here didn’t shake the camera continuously during the well-staged action sequences.
The DVD itself is a fairly decent but sparse disk. The visuals, as I stated previously, are the highlight of this movie and the DVD showcases them well. Every scene was consciously designed with its color scheme in mind so I can’t imagine seeing this movie on VHS. The sound is fine; the music is one of the best parts of the movie (featuring such diverse artists as violinist Itzhak Perelman and Japanese Drummers Kodo), and both the original Mandarin soundtrack and the English dub were handled with care so no complaints in that department.
The extras are somewhat skimpy. The disk has a fairly standard ‘making of’ featurette I didn’t find interesting. It also contains an interview of Jet Li, with Quentin Tarantino conducting the interview. If this piece sounds like a fanboy drool fest, you are pretty close to the mark. I found it more interesting because I like (most) Asian action movies. It also contained a section comparing storyboards with the action sequenced as they were filmed.
Ultimately I think what kept me from liking Hero too much is that it seems like a propaganda film. At the risk of spoiling the movie, it tries to celebrate the advantages of bloody tyranny and iron rule: beat and murder everyone into submission so peace can reign over the land. Sure, that always works. I will forgive movies with good messages somewhat if their concepts are poorly executed; likewise I have a hard time liking a movie with a bad message no matter how exciting or well made the message’s package. Hero’s ideals just left me cold.