I've said it before and I'll say it again: when a film is good enough
– not just garden-variety "good," but stunning,
amazing, incredible – it's extremely difficult to review. Where
can I get a handle on a film like Hero?
I'll start by giving the barest outline of the story. In ancient
China, a nameless warrior (Jet Li) comes to the king of Qin claiming
an incredible accomplishment: he has killed the assassins Sky, Broken
Sword, and Flying Snow, who have threatened the king's life for
years. The king, naturally enough, is curious to know how Nameless
managed to take the life of these outstanding warriors.
And thus the tale unfolds... but not the way we expect. I can't go
into detail without spoiling the story, but I'll just say this: the
storytelling in Hero doesn't follow a conventional structure.
For one thing, recall that we start out hearing one character tell a
story to another. Can we fully trust the narrator? Is what we see
really what happened? The flashback sequences are so compelling that
we're fully drawn in, only to be pulled back to the present moment
and asked to reflect on what we've just experienced. And there are
surprises in store as well...
From the very first scene of the
film, it's obvious that Hero is a visually stunning
film, in a way that goes beyond gorgeous landscapes, lavish sets, or
elaborate costumes. (In fact, Hero's costuming and sets, while
obviously of the highest quality, tend toward the minimalistic in
style.) The beauty in Hero is everywhere, not just in what we
see but in the way that the cinematography shows it to us. Every
frame of Hero could be a painting, if taken out of the film
and shown on its own. There's not an ordinary or bland shot in the
entire film; every second of every scene is visually compelling.
That attention to visual style has some interesting consequences for
the movie as a whole... or perhaps it's that the unconventional
narrative of the film demanded an interesting presentation. In any
case, Hero is a highly stylized film. While the characters are
truly three-dimensional, fully realized characters, whom we come to
care about even though we know very little about them, they operate
in a story world that is far from ordinary or conventional. While
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon embedded stylized elements in a
largely realistic setting, Hero fully embraces the heightened
effect that can come from an almost completely stylized treatment of
the material. (The comparison with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
is inevitable, but it's not one that Hero needs to shy away
from: while I think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an
excellent film, Hero is better on all counts.)
One result of Hero's visual and narrative style is that the
fight sequences have a very different feel to them than we'd expect
from a traditional "action" film. The battles are almost
completely bloodless – we only see blood in certain very
dramatic shots – and are more akin to ballet than any form of
combat. The martial arts scenes in Hero explicitly invite us
to watch them as art, the exhibition of physical skill and reflexes
taken to a level where it becomes poetry in motion, a test of the
mind as much as the body. The incorporation of wire-fu moves adds a
level of fantasy to these scenes that matches perfectly the stylized,
slightly fantastic feel of the film as a whole.
So Hero is a delight both in its narrative and in its visual
style... but that's not the end of it. More than that, Hero
invites us to consider some very interesting ideas, from a
perspective that we (as U.S. viewers) aren't often asked to take. We're
accustomed to the Hollywood system of values, in which individualism
is celebrated, tyrants are always toppled, and revenge for wrongs
done is both well-deserved and thoroughly satisfying. Hero
seduces us into a story that seems to follow those well-worn story
tracks: we have an imperialistic warlord who needs to be dispatched,
and we meet impassioned, highly talented individuals who want nothing
more than to get revenge on the man whose armies invaded their land
and killed their families. Staple action fare, right?
Wrong... delightfully wrong. The genius of Hero is that it
presents a plausible storyline, then flips everything around to
confound your expectations... and then does it again. By the end of
the film, we witness the characters making decisions that force us to
confront our own preconceived ideas about what's right and wrong, and
when a lesser evil is (or is not) necessary in the pursuit of a
You've probably concluded (quite accurately) that I think this is a
fantastic film. The only thing I don't like about this release is
Quentin Tarantino's name on the packaging. Don't get me wrong:
Tarantino is a talented filmmaker and I'm sure his patronage of the
film will cause it to sell more copies, which is a good thing. But
viewers who go by nothing more than the packaging on Hero may
come into the film expecting it to be an "action" movie,
and it most emphatically is not.
Got that? Hero is not an action movie. Not even close.
Hero is a movie that defies an easy genre classification,
shrugging off conventional limitations about what an "action,"
"drama," "martial arts," or "historical"
film should or shouldn't be. Does it have fight scenes? Yes, but the
stylized, often slow-motion, dreamy, dance-like fight scenes in Hero
have only a passing resemblance to the kind of adrenaline-boosting
kung-fu action that appears in blockbusters like The Matrix.
It's no accident that within the film, the characters compare
swordfighting with music and calligraphy. If you come in looking for
a testosterone-powered action fix, you'll miss out on what Hero
really has to offer. The film unfolds smoothly and steadily, always
unhurried, but at the same time it sucks you in and doesn't ever let
Miramax's presentation of Hero is the original, 99-minute
theatrical cut of the film; a slightly longer "director's cut"
was previously released in Asia. I've seen both versions, and I'll
give the nod to the theatrical version. The ten extra minutes in the
director's cut just add snippets of additional material to existing
scenes, with nothing that adds any particular insight or new level of
meaning to the film. While I was watching the theatrical version, I
didn't miss any of the extra footage in the slightest, even though
the director's cut is the version I saw first. The theatrical cut is
a perfect example of "less is more": it is exactly as long
as it needs to be, and not so much as a frame longer.
Viewers who already own a R0 or R3 version of the film may be wondering whether it's worthwhile to replace their copy with this new R1 release. If for no other reason, I'd say it's worth upgrading to get a version of the film with the opening and closing text in English. While this narrative frame isn't absolutely required to understand the film, it does provide some context that's quite useful in appreciating the story, and it's one more thing that helps make the whole viewing experience compelling from beginning to end.
Hero is attractively packaged in a plastic keepcase, although
it has a rather pointless cardboard slipcase that fits over the case.
All the same information appears on both the cardboard case and the
DVD case, so it's just a waste of packaging. The menus are attractive, clear, and very easy to navigate, and there's a stylish opening animation, if you like that sort of thing (but it's skippable, if you don't).
Miramax's transfer of Hero looks superb. It's presented in its
original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically
enhanced. The film's stylized color palette is faithfully reproduced
here, with the rich red, blue, and green dominant tones presented in
a visually arresting manner. Blacks are deep and dark, while still
showing detail, and whites are crisp and subtly textured. The print
is in pristine condition, with no flaws as far as I could see; the
image is sharp and nicely detailed, with close-ups in particular
looking stunning. The film is full of challenging shots with broad
expanses of single colors, an environment that's unforgiving of the
smallest amount of noise, so it's fantastic to see the clean,
flawless picture here. The only thing between this transfer and
perfection is a small amount of
grain in a few of the shots, and the occasional touch of edge enhancement. Hero is a visual treat, as it
The English subtitles are optional, and appear in a nicely readable
yellow font at the bottom of the picture. Spanish subtitles and
English closed captions are also available, and all the caption
choices can be selected on the fly.
Hero's DTS 5.1 Mandarin Chinese track will blow you away. The
sound design, coupled with the outstanding quality of the audio
transfer, makes for a simply stunning audio experience. For one
thing, the surround channels are aggressively used, with phenomenal
use of directional effects as well as immersive audio effects.
Whatever action is happening on-screen, we feel like we're smack in
the middle of it.
The sound is also impressive in its clarity and richness. The
voiceover narrator is always crisp and distinct, and the actors'
voices sound perfectly natural and are well integrated into the
overall soundtrack; the lovely musical score is evident enough to be
appreciated, but never intrudes or interferes with any of the other
elements of the soundtrack. On one occasion in the film, all action
stops for a long moment of total silence, and once again we hear how
perfect the soundtrack is, because the silence is truly total:
there's not so much as a whisper or hiss in the background. The DTS
track is not the default setting (the Chinese 5.1 is), but you can
select the DTS either from the audio menu or on the fly.
The Mandarin Chinese Dolby 5.1 track is also a very nicely done
track, and gets high marks for overall quality. It's not as rich and
immersive as the DTS track, though, so if you have the ability to
decode DTS, that track should be your choice.
Dubbed English and French 5.1 tracks are also included. The overall
sound quality is the same as the Chinese 5.1, but... well, they're
dubbed. While the dubbing is done adequately, the dubbed track just
completely lacks the power of the original performances. Even if you
aren't accustomed to watching films with subtitles, give it a try in
this case: Hero really needs to be experienced in its original
language. (In a nice reminder to viewers, the default audio option is
the Chinese 5.1 track with English subtitles.)
While Hero isn't loaded with bonus material, it does have
several very nice special features.
Of most interest is a 24-minute featurette called "Hero
Defined." It's a short but information-rich making-of piece that
covers the progress of the film from original idea through the
filming process. A number of interview clips with director Zhang
Yimou (in Chinese with English subtitles) give a very interesting
insight into the overall film.
The other main special feature is a 14-minute segment called "Inside
the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li."
Tarantino mostly acts as an interviewer (although he can't help but
interject some comments on his own project, Kill Bill) and
draws Li into talking about not just his experiences on Hero,
but also his background in other martial arts films, with clips from
those films interwoven into the featurette. It's not bad, especially
if you are intrigued by Li's other work.
Lastly, we get a short trailer for the film's soundtrack on CD, and a
nicely done storyboards section. There are storyboards for four
scenes (and a "play all" feature), running about 5 minutes
in total. We get a split-screen presentation, with the hand-drawn
storyboard on top and the same clip from the finished movie on the
just say that I like Hero: I flat-out love it. It's a film
with a strong and distinctive identity of its own, woven together
from an imaginative story idea and a stunning visual style.
Transcending narrow definitions of genre, Hero is a film that
I can honestly recommend to anyone who appreciates a great film, because it stands on its own and
invites viewers to experience it on its own terms. What's more, this
elegantly paced film is eminently re-watchable, offering as much
delight on the second viewing as on the first. Miramax's presentation
of Hero with such a fantastic video and audio experience makes
this DVD an obvious choice to receive the DVDTalk Collector's Series
rating. Go buy this DVD... you be glad you did.