Hero (2002) / Action-Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would probably be R for violence
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Daomin Chen, Donnie Yen
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou
Review published May 21, 2003
With the success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it seemed easy to surmise that we were going to see more kung-fu epics emerge shortly thereafter. Hero is the first formidable one of these to emerge from China, and while it isn't as good as its predecessor in the genre, there's still quite a bit to admire in the effort. Alas, almost all of the praise goes to the production elements, as Hero is a marvel of cinematography, costume design, artwork, and an overall visual aesthetic. Built around a semi-parable that probably would have been a short story if it were told in print form, the narrative is scant, and the proceedings will either completely mesmerize you or lull you to sleep, depending on your tolerance for such eye-candy theatrics.
Hero is set in pre-Imperial Ancient China, where the king of the Qin section threatens to overtake the other six kingdoms and make them his own. Factions have tried and failed to assassinate the king, to the point where all of his main enemies have been vanquished, in large part to the mysterious man who battled them and won (played by Jet Li, Kiss of the Dragon) In gratitude for his heroics, the man is summoned before the king and put in proximity to him, closer than anyone has been able to get in a while due to the assassination attempts. The king is interested in hearing the story of how he defeated his enemies, but is he a hero for Qin or is this a another ploy to kill the king?
Although it takes time for the story to eventually become interesting, Hero is still visually engaging even when there isn't much going on in the plot. Beautiful costumes, gorgeous sets, amazing over-the-top battles, and an outstanding color-scheme all make this one of the most lavish of martial arts films to date. For those who enjoy seeing great cinematography, Hero is probably worth the price of admission alone, with its sweeping shots around ancient palaces, nice backdrops, and epic scope.
If only the main story could have been meatier, as it is almost completely lost within the visual framework, and the fact that it is quite confusing, especially in the beginning, will lead many a viewer to remain aloof to the entire affair, despite the stunning displays. In many ways, Hero recalls Wong Kar-Wai's esoteric and equally ponderous Ashes of Time, although not quite as frustrating to follow. Eventually, the main conflict within the story finally narrows to one of trust, and for those who have patience and maintain diligent attention, the film as a whole starts to gel into a much more solid narrative form.
With Jet Li and Donnie Yen (Blade II) among the cast, you can expect quite a bit of extravagant fighting, and Hero definitely has its share of stunners in that department. However, as ambitious as they are, its amazing how they seem to detract from, rather than enhance the story. The problems mostly stem from the fact that we aren't quite sure what the motivations of anyone are, and thus have no rooting interest in the fights that follow. Also, as incredible as they are staged, they are just too over-the-top, with swords bending, combatants flying around, and many other instances which defy the laws of every science, that they become mere exercises in showing off rather than a truly exciting showdown.
All in all, your feelings regarding Hero as a film will probably run the gamut from a confusing, boring spectacle, all the way to a visual epic masterpiece. As you can see from the amount of stars I have given it, I fall closer toward the latter, but acknowledge the opinions of the former. With a little less symbolic pretense, and a little more concentration on good characters and storyline, the foundation was set to make Hero one of the best films of recent years. Although I found it to be one of the better films of the past year, considering its lofty ambitions, it's still a bit hard not to consider this a bit of a disappointment. I would love to see more films take the time and effort to sweep us off our feet, but I hope future projects learn something from some of the mistakes of Hero, by not reaching for the heavens before setting their feet firmly on the ground.
©2003 Vince Leo