Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes
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Like many of today’s special effect riddled war epics, the martial-arts genre has been plagued by a lot of films that have lacked substance. Many of these epics used incredibly fake CGI created armies waging enormous battles with little or nor regard for the storyline. These mammoth battles basically shoved the plot to the back of the priority list and overshadowing everything. They often lacked any emotional attachment to the story, thus becoming more of a distraction than a valued chapter to tie in with the rest of the story. This is certainly not the case with Hero. Every moment is a piece to a grand puzzle that is indispensable to drive the story and plot ahead to its surprising and climatic finish. Director Zhang Yimou, together with the brilliant cinematography of Christopher Doyle has created a modern masterpiece that not only fans of genre, but also fans of film in general will appreciate and enjoy.
The setting takes place in ancient Chinese times, then the country is torn apart into several kingdoms by war. Qin, the ruler of the northern province hears that a single nameless assassin has wiped out what were his greatest enemies that wanted to see him dead. Eager to hear the story of how this came about, Qin summons this nameless man to sit and have tea with him within 20 paces. This is a great honor since no one is allowed to stand within 100 paces of Qin out of fear of assassination. The film follows via a series of flashbacks how the nameless and seemingly minor official managed to vanquish Qin’s principal enemies while the two share a cup of tea. It’s a simple, yet very interesting plot that has some interesting twists that I am sure will surprise many as they listen to the interesting conversation going on between Qin and his guest.
This plot works because the film is carried buy a cast that all manage to give career performances. Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, and especially Jet Li all deliver the goods, making this the best martial-arts film I’ve seen in a long time. While I’m sure many will make the obvious comparison to ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’… I honest thought Hero was a lot more fun to watch. One thing I didn’t like about the Tiger was that it had too much space between the fights, which was something that Hero never had to worry about. There are a lot of great fights in this film, and you never have to wait too long to see the next one. Since much of the film is told in flashbacks, they are able to cut to the next duel quick quickly while at the same time cutting back and forth back to the storytelling and the main setting. While Hero may have a similar wire-fu wushu action, I found it to be comical at times and then sad the next moment. There are a few tear jerking moments in this movie to, making it a full package, with a little of everything all mixed in.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Jet Li, but this film to be some of the best work he’s ever done. Compare this to the American films he’s done like ‘Kiss of the Dragon’ and ‘The One’, and Hero stands head and shoulders above them all, despite being made with likely smaller means. While the others (such as ‘The One’) have much better effects, the action isn’t as good nor is that acting. Characters such as the nameless assassin have the appeal of mystery, which in turn creates a dialogue that is both captivating and interesting. At first he arrives under a drape of complete secrecy to both the audience and to Qin… and one layer at a time we peel his character like an orange until finally the truth is revealed for all to see. I especially liked the way the director managed to give every character just enough time to establish them without going into the realm of character development overkill. Never during this film did I have to ask myself why a certain character did this or did that during the film. Everything is made crystal clear, as the audience understands everyone’s motives and exactly why things happen the way the do. This film doesn’t daddle you around and get right to the guts of everything fast, keeping the film to a slim and very drag free ninety minutes.
Yet the best thing about Hero is its use of vivid colors and thunderous sounds makes that make you feel as if you were really there. The sound and the images are so rich in detail that you could have sworn you were in an IMAX theatre. Each shot is a work of art, and the use of color is some of the best I’m ever seen used on film. The bright and very in your face color add a lot of dimension and numerous levels of depth rarely seen in this genre. There are many shots in this movie that simply take your breathe away and there are some subtle uses of color as well (such as the bright red feather in a soldiers spear in a dark setting) that stick out a like a sore thumb and make what would usually have been a dark and depressing scene more inspired and artistic. Using different tones of color during specific scenes also helped establish an attitude that was trying to be projected in a particular scene (such as red for rage and jealousy) which allowed the audience to feel what someone was thinking rather that just listening to or reading it off the screen. The scenes with the mighty armies of Qin are also spectacular, with real armies (provided by the Chinese Army I’ve been told) gathering around lining up making the CGI armies of the past few years look as fake as they really were. It added an element of quality and sound that I thought was more genuine and again looked more artful than it did aggressive. A scene with the archers was also sensational, and unmatched in terms of quality and impact.
Overall, Hero is a movie that just seemed to have everything come together and click. The film’s art direction, fight choreography, music, acting and especially cinematography are top notch, making this a movie I would highly recommend. I think this film will inspire many die-hard fans of the martial-art film and give them hope for what is to come. Hero again raises the bar for quality within it’s genre much like Crouching Tiger did a few years ago, proving that there is room for art in an martial-arts film. Zhang Yimou has directed a work of art, and a great film that I am sure many will enjoy and will be dazzled by when seeing this intense and very colorful juggernaut on the big screen. But I found some of the film’s advertising to be a tad misleading, as it’s more stylish and dramatic, as the commercials would portray the movie more as a non-stop action film. While it has the action to back up the setting, it’s not a wall-to-wall action film. If you liked watching ‘Crouching Tiger’ then this film will blow you away and leave you breathless.
Posted on August 22, 2004 in Reviews by Peter Lowry
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