Starring Jet Li, Ziyi Zhang, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and Daoming Chen
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Hero is a very pretty movie. Pretty, pretty, pretty. The sets and costumes are lavish and colorful, the locations vibrant and lustrous or vast and desolate (whichever the story calls for at the time). Visually, it has all the polish of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the movie with which it shall ever be compared.
The problem with making such a comparison is that I expected Hero to live up to it on levels beyond The Pretty. I expected an engaging story, competent acting, characters I cared about, and breathtaking martial arts sequences. On at least one of those points, I should have known better. Hero stars Jet Li, after all.
Jet Li moves like some sort of jungle cat crossed with a bird of prey. His physical capabilities range from simply impressive to absolutely mind-numbing. Unfortunately, physical prowess and acting ability do not seem to be directly related. Being able to kick twenty-eight cubic yards of ass per second does not grant one the ability to emote. Jet Li, sadly, is not much of an actor. As a result, my emotional investment in the nameless hero was nil. Jet Li is perfect for an action-oriented film such as The One (which doesn’t mean I particularly liked that movie, either), where emotion doesn’t need to get in the way of ass-kicking. For Hero to be in the same dramatic arena as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though, I need to empathize with the protagonist.
As it turns out, there are decent actors in this film. Most of the other characters, including – and perhaps especially – the king of Qin (Daoming Chen), are played very well. Whether we like or dislike them (and our feelings toward them can and do change during the course of the story), at least it’s possible to feel something.
The story through which the characters progress is an interesting one, if somewhat shoddily realized. Nameless (Jet Li) has come before the king of Qin after disposing of three assassins (Broken Sword, Sky and Flying Snow, played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Donnie Yen and Maggie Cheung, respectively). How Nameless managed to accomplish this is told through a series of flashbacks that ultimately lead up to the final conflict of the film.
Every flashback contains one or more color-coordinated battles. In each case, everyone involved wears the same color clothing: red in one fight, green in another, white in a third. Visually, this is an interesting device. It does begin to wear thin after a while, though.
The fights themselves are largely anticlimactic. Some sequences are impressive, but most fall flat. The filmmakers rely too heavily on the computer-generated aspects of the battles. In one fight, the combatants are often hidden in clouds of swirling leaves; in another, billowing green draperies serve to obscure the action rather than accent it. Unfortunately, these CG elements often scream special effect, rather than being truly special.
Another problem with the action sequences is how they are edited. One battle, which takes place on a beautiful lake, is thrown together so ham-handedly that it is impossible to determine what the fighters are doing. Too much focus is given to shots of sword tips skimming the surface of the water, and not enough to building a linear and comprehensible action sequence. It is an unfortunate instance of The Pretty superseding everything else.
Hero borrows one more element from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Ziyi Zhang. Unfortunately, her character (Moon) is little more than window dressing, and has only one scene in which she gets appreciable screen time and attention. Still, Zhang is very easy to watch.
In the end, Hero doesn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. Beautiful locations, sets and costumes (the soundtrack is suitably elegant, as well) cannot disguise the fundamental shortcomings, which means that Hero won’t find a place next to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in my DVD collection.
One final note: I don’t know what the hell “Quentin Tarantino Presents” means with respect to this movie. Why Tarantino’s name is attached to this film is beyond me. To the best of my knowledge, he had no hand in the production of Hero. If the special features of the DVD explain the association, then it is my fault for not watching them. However, I generally don’t make a habit of watching special features for films I didn’t particularly enjoy. [Edit: Tarantino is the film’s American distributor.]