"Hero" is an impossibly beautiful martial arts film that plays like an epic, despite running a tad over 90 minutes. The film is Chinese director Zhang Yimou's first attempt at a martial arts/action feature, and mostly, the results are a roaring success that, in many regards, challenges or exceeds some of the remarkable entries in the genre in recent memory.
The film stars Jet Li as a nameless assassin who presents himself in front of the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming). The assassin offers his services to the king, as he claims to have killed the trio of Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen) - all assassins who were out to kill the king. However, the story isn't exactly as it may seem - "Hero", in "Rashomon" style, presents different sides of the tale, presented from different viewpoints. Different colors are emphasized to highlight the different versions of the tale.
"Hero" does not present a hugely complex tale, but the film does offer enough story, enough character detail and memorable scenes to stay compelling. With the different viewpoints, it's also a film that requires one to stay focused. I doubt I'll ever forget some scenes from the film, whose cinematography (by Wong-Kar Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, whose work is always remarkable) and visual effects (this is the most expensive Chinese movie ever) result in some utterly jaw-dropping moments. A battle between two women in red dresses in the midst of a swirl of golden leaves is visually astonishing, with the leaves swirling about via the power of each thrust of the swords. Another sequence that ends with a cup landing on a sword perfectly has to be seen to be believed. While there are some fans out there that look for graphic material going along with this genre, it was pleasant to watch "Hero"'s elegant action and not have it be overly graphic in terms of violence.
The performances are also terrific, as director Yimou has assembled a terrific cast. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are masterful in their performances, while Zhang Ziyi is as elegant and graceful as ever. Jet Li also offers a terrific lead effort. Dialogue isn't necessarily sparse in the film, but there's a lot of emotions that have to be presented without words, and the performers all succeed in that regard. Overall, this is a poetic and compelling feature that combines action that raises the bar with a well-done story.
"Pulp Fiction" director Quentin Tarantino, who was apparently instrumental in getting the film finally released in the US after Miramax had it sitting in the vault, gets producer credit.
VIDEO: "Hero" is presented by Miramax in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is certainly one of the most visually breathtaking films I've seen in ages - the film should certainly get a little more attention than usual when it comes to the visual element of the DVD. Unfortunately, the picture quality is just satisfactory. Sharpness and detail vary throughout the film - the picture has moments where it appears noticably soft, and yet there are other scenes in the picture where detail approaches an average, somewhat more pleasing level.
The picture does suffer from other issues, as well. Although none of these issues take away from the presentation too much, it's still rather troubling that they're there at all. Some compression artifacts are visible at times, as is some minor edge enhancement. There's a bit more grain in the image than I remember seeing when I saw the film theatrically earlier this year, but it wasn't always visible. Some slight specks on the print used were also spotted in a few scenes.
Colors, which are such an important element in the film, look fine. Colors showed fine saturation, but while watching the film, I felt as if they lacked that extra kick that they possessed when I saw the film theatrically. Flesh tones looked fine, while black level appeared solid. Overall, this transfer has moments where it comes closer to what I was expecting for the presentation of this film, but the overall impression is a pretty average effort for some pretty spectacular images.
SOUND: "Hero" is presented in Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 , with English subtitles. There is also a dubbed version of the film in English Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's sound mix does offer some aggressive moments, especially during some of the action sequences. Surrounds kick in a pretty satisfying amount of sound effects - although some sound effects did not seem as seamlessly integrated as I would have liked, the majority of the sound effects were effective. The DTS soundtrack seemed a bit more seamless and enveloping than the Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Audio quality throughout seemed superb, as dialogue seemed crisp and clear, while the score seemed well-recorded. I listed to the original language soundtrack, then tried to listen to the English dubbed track, and ended up listening to the English dub for about 5 minutes before turning it off. It's unfortunate that the DTS presentation offered on the prior release is nowhere to be found.
EXTRAS: There's storyboards for four scenes, a fairly decent 24-minute "making of" documentary that offers some information but not much depth, and finally, a 13-minute conversation between Quentin Tarantino and actor Jet Li. A soundtrack spot is also offered. Additionally, this special edition offers the "Close Up of a Fight Scene" featurette and storyboards. It's really too bad that this new Special Edition doesn't offer any in-depth new extras, such as a commentary.
Final Thoughts: "Hero" offers superior performances and visually magificent images. While the scenery was thrilling on the big screen, I ended up appreciating the film more the second time around, on DVD. This new DVD edition of "Hero" does not offer enough difference - in terms of presentation or extras - to recommend upgrading. The new Blu-Ray edition of "Hero" is recommended, instead.
The Film B+