Also known as Ying xiong, this 2002 import presented by Quentin Tarantino isn’t precisely up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s style and completeness, but it does tell a compelling story in the most artistic means possible.
Nameless (Jet Li) has been summoned to meet the King of Qin (Daoming Chen). In the High Palace, Nameless is granted unparalleled access to sit and drink with the king for destroying three enemy assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). As Nameless recounts the story of how he accomplished this impossible feat so that the king may live without fear for his life, a decision must be made that will affect the lives of all six kingdoms that will one day unite to become China herself.
It has been reported that, in typical Miramax fashion, this import film was to be edited to Americanize the film for Western audiences (let’s not even discuss the mistranslated subtitles which may or may not reflect the actual meaning of the words spoken in the film), but Quentin Tarantino reportedly permitted the use of his name in the opening credits in an effort to release the film as intact and untouched as possible. As the film plays out now, it’s hard to imagine what twenty minutes could have been cut out to make the film play at all, let alone fix. Fortunately, the film is excellent as is: a series of stories recounting deeds and plots within plots to bring about a final decision.
One thing that makes Hero interesting is the simplicity of its story being retold. As Nameless omits and embellishes to make his telling more palatable to the King, the King’s own knowledge (and imagination) reveals perceived flaws that amend Nameless’ stories and move the plot along. Too many details or heavier plotting could have muddled or confused such an effort, but the retelling is done cleverly to preserve the overall impact. From a visual aspect, each recounting is stylized using a primary color (red, blue, green, white) to maximum effect while also adding to the mood of each part. The players are well cast for their roles, but the camera loves every moment it can steal of Ziyi Zhang (in the supporting role of Broken Sword’s apprentice), who has already been cast in the title role of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha (look for her also in Hero director Yimou Zhang?s House of Flying Daggers).
Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the warriors and assassins of Hero also command a supernatural mastery of their skills, such as running across water, slashing with blades so powerfully that heavy winds follow each arc, and moving so quickly that a swordsman can dodge between raindrops. It can be argued that these effects are only due to the retelling; the fact that the special effects are good but not the best can support this idea (good for a no-name non-bronze no-prize), but the effects serve the story instead of the other way around, which is a lesson many Hollywood directors are still struggling to learn. While not everyone watching Hero may appreciate the depth of these characters or the honor behind their actions, those in the know will enjoy the show.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)