Director: Zhang Yimou
Action director: Ching Siu-Tung
Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle
Stars: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Chan Diy Ming, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen
In a tulmultious time in China's history, various warring factions are looking to topple the emperor (played here by Chan Diy Ming). The most powerful of these, the Zhao, are led by three deadly assassins known as Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow (portrayed repectively by Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung). They launch a daring attack on the capital only to have Broken Sword hestitate at the last minute and fail to kill the emperor. Shaken, the emperor instills high security which allows no one within 100 paces. However, after a mysterious stranger known only as Nameless (played by Jet Li in his first Asian film in several years) claims to have taken out the trio of assassins, the emperor allows him within ten paces. As Nameless' true story unfolds, the emperor realizes that he may have had made a mistake in allowing the warrior -- whose real motives are unclear -- too close, but is powerless to do anything about it. Now China's future comes down to Nameless; will he succeed where Broken Sword had failed?
One of the most anticipated films of 2002, this big-budget affair with an all-star cast thankfully does not disappoint. Though like many Mainland films, it is a bit slow, but the story and action are powerful enough to truly suck the viewer in and immerse them in the story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Hero is the best swordplay movie since Ashes of Time. Yes, it's similar to the much-ballyhooed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but whereas Crouching Tiger used a familiar story and simplistic structure, Hero takes some risks both with content and the means of carrying the story out. Heavily dependent on flashbacks and multiple viewpoints, the story might be confusing for some, but for those with a bit of patience, the rewards are there. Hero is refreshing in this age of pop cookie-cutter film-making -- it's strong enough to elevate the movie above others of its' ilk without being excessively "arty" or boring.
But for those not interested in that, Hero still offers up striking visuals and dazzling action. Asian films rarely look this good -- the sweeping vistas and hordes of soldiers attacking are simply breathtaking. Anyone who still equates martial arts movies with the grainy, no-budget 1970's old-school stuff needs to check Hero out. It is simply one of the most visually powerful films to come out over the last several years from anywhere in the world. Nearly every shot is almost like a painting in itself. Everything is so well-composed that the viewer could probably tell the story just from the pictures even if there were no subtitles. The cinematographers and editors obsessed with doing the MTV-style schizophrenic editing really need to sit down and watch this movie -- this is how things should be done.
As for the action, it is masterfully done under the eye of legendary fight director Ching Siu-Tung. Ching has been a major player in the field for over twenty years now, but has not gotten the level of recognition some of his contemporaries like Yuen Woo-Ping. Hopefully Hero will change this. The fights in the movie are an interesting mix of old-school, wire-fu and a bit of "computer-fu" (ala Matrix) that work extremely well together. Of course, Jet Li and Donnie Yen most always look great in fights (and their duel here is exciting), but it takes something special to make Maggie Cheung look like a trained killer. It's not the moves she does (which frankly aren't that impressive), but the way she does them. Again, other film-makers should take note. Instead of trying to squash actors into some generic mold, be like Ching and use each actor uniquely.
Overall, I don't have much to complain about with Hero. The story does take a bit to get off the ground, and Zhang Ziyi's character of Broken Sword's student seems a bit under-written. But these are minor quibbles. Even if you have grown disenchanted with the swordplay genre, you really should give Hero a look. It's not only one of the best movies of 2002, it's a new milestone in the genre, and deserves a viewing by anyone who considers themselves a fan of Asian cinema.
A review for the DVD of this movie can be found here
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