Hero (Special Edition)

The Chinese sword-fighting epic Hero was released in 2002 and then came to America in 2004 thanks to a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” above it on the marquee. Now it’s back in a Special Edition DVD. I’m not a huge fan of communism. Call me an old-fashioned stick in the mud, but I’m not big on the whole paternal-state-killing-the-individual-for-the-good-of-the-many thingamajig. Hero, a Jet Li movie with some amazing sword action, seems to love communism, or at least loves some of those ideas about how a true hero is someone who lets a dictator crush his country in the name of peace.

The dictator in this case is the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) in ancient China, who receives Nameless (Jet Li) in his palace. The King is attempting to unite China’s warring states by brutally killing anyone opposed to his plan. Nameless claims he has killed three dangerous assassins who have previously attempted to kill the King: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). He tells each story to the King, and through flashbacks, we see the sword fights between Li and his co-stars.

Wow, and double wow – if you are into people on wires flying around lakes, trees, and deserts whipping their swords at each other at top speed, this is the movie for you. The choreography, captured by Christopher Doyle’s sharp cinematography, is exciting, crisp, and intricate. Basically, all you could want in fake fighting. Adding to the fights is the truly epic scope, with armies moving over sweeping vistas. This was reportedly the most expensive movie made in China to date, and it shows on the screen. Also, the movie is fanciful and mythic, so the fantastic quality of the fights, as compared to more brutal hand-to-hand fights in a Bruce Lee-type movie, is appropriate.

Where the movie falters is in the story structure and overall theme. The title Hero begs us to question what a “hero” is and who is the “hero” of this story. The King doesn’t believe Nameless’ story, so the same meetings are seen again and again with different information. Director Zhang Yimou seems to be going for Rashomon, but the structure ends up more confusing than anything. Things that actually happened seem to contradict other things that have happened and make characters’ actions unlikely. Zhang Yimou does use bold colors in a helpful way to signal shifts in mood, location, and versions of the same story being told for the second or third time.

Again, it all comes down to the theme. While not exactly a love letter to the current Chinese regime, I’m sure a communist propaganda officer wouldn’t have quibbled about the points supporting the King’s actions and how it is viewed by characters like Nameless and Broken Sword. The funny thing is that, in addition to rubbing an old anti-commie like me the wrong way, it will likely also bug Western liberals who would see a little too much American imperialism in the King. It’s lose-lose in some ways.

Sometimes it’s just fun to turn the brain to half-power and enjoy some cool scenery, beautiful colors, and kick-ass swordplay. That’s where Hero shines. The rest is more an annoying gnat than anything – not enough to ruin the movie, but certainly something you wish wasn’t there. This Special Edition DVD is being released concurrently with a Blu-ray. While I don’t have any serious problems with the picture on this DVD, if you have a Blu-ray, it makes sense to get that, since this is a visually powerful film and deserves the sharpest definition possible. The Blu-ray reportedly has a DVD copy also, and the extras are exactly the same on the DVD and Blu-ray releases.

The Special Edition extras aren’t all that special, since they mirror the 2004 DVD release with the exception of “Close-up of a Fight Scene.” This eight-minute extra isn’t exactly a “close-up,” more just the standard behind-the-scenes information on the fight between Nameless and Sky. It’s not really enough to justify making an upgrade to the Special Edition version.

The regular behind-the-scenes featurette is “Hero Defined.” It’s about 25 minutes and pretty all encompassing, including interviews with Jet Li, Zhang Yimou, and the other stars. Interestingly, it’s narrated by that guy who does a lot of the PBS current documentaries. For whatever reason, his voice seems to give things more weight and immediacy. Still, it’s a basic featurette.

The most interesting thing to watch is “A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li.” Produced for television, the duo talks about kung fu movies and Li’s career in general, and then about Hero in particular. It’s hard to understand Li at times, but most of the time you are so distracted by Tarantino’s odd haircut that it doesn’t matter much.

The other two extras are very vague-looking storyboards that are shown split screen with the actual scenes from the movie for big fights like the forest battle and the lake fight. At least you get to see something on how movies are made. The final, one-minute extra is an ad for the soundtrack.

Overall, it’s a bit of a weak Special Edition. When that is combined with the fact that the Blu-ray is available, it’s probably better to skip this and get the Blu-ray. You’ll get a DVD copy and can hold onto the Blu-ray for future use. If you have an older DVD copy, I wouldn’t say the one brief extra that was added is worth the upgrade. Still, it’s a visually appealing movie with a few extras, and if you want to see some fighting at a very high technical level, this might be a DVD for you.