I've rarely felt this conflicted
in responding to a DVD release. On one hand, Hero is an
outstanding film in every respect. It's beautifully designed
and staged, with a rich fable of a plot. On the other hand, this
DVD, while branded by Mirimax as a "Special Edition," is simply
a re-packaging of the film's earlier release with the addition of
a single short extra feature.
A longer 107-minute Chinese
cut of Hero exists. It is said to be a slightly more fleshed-out
improvement upon the 99-minute US theatrical cut. I don't know
where director Zhang Yimou stands on this subject, but this would have
been a golden opportunity for Mirimax to revisit the film, and add some
decent new features as well. I feel genuinely screwed over, although
perhaps my anticipation was foolhardy - this "new" version was
released without any fanfare at all. Still, Mirimax is to be chided
for calling this repackage a Special Edition, which it most certainly
To get back to basics, Hero
is a remarkable film. In ancient China, the title character, Nameless
(Jet Li), is summoned by the Emperor of Qin province to tell the story
of how he single-handedly dispatched three heretofore unbeatable assassins
out to murder the Emperor. As Nameless tells the tale, the Emperor
notices holes in it and queries Nameless, who admits that there is more
to the story. Nameless is actually part of a conspiracy involving
said assassins to kill the Emperor. However, as the story continues
to evolve, and further layers emerge, we learn the complexity of the
warrior code and the many meanings of honor.
is without a doubt one of the most visually flawless films I've seen.
The sets, costumes, and photography are stellar. In fact, every
technical aspect of the film is outstanding, including the very involving
sound design. The deep dark wood of the buildings, flowing fabric
banners, and bright autumnal leaves provide just a few of this film's
countless lasting images. The stupendous fight sequences mesh
gracefully with the imagery and the acrobatics are lovely, feeling more
like extensions of real physical motion rather than impossible stunts
done for the sake of the "wow" factor.
Another thing that sets
Hero apart is the way it is edited. Unlike more typical martial
arts films - and contemporary American action films - you can actually
see what's going on in every scene, including the fight sequences.
Zhang captures the film lovingly, allowing the work of the crew and
cast to sink in, so audiences can see and remember the action - rather
than dazing them with rapid cutting that numbingly obscures the photography,
art direction, and stunts.
Plotted like a dense medieval fable,
Hero also takes time crafting a thoughtful, timeless story of determined,
principled action. Jet Li's Nameless patiently and resolutely
stakes his position, and allows things to play out as they must, facing
each challenge with self-possessed calm. Rather than being broadcast
with musical stings and jerky camera movements, the plot's twists
are presented with directorial equanimity, and therefore come across
all the more profoundly to the attentive viewer. Hero's
ultimate strength is its meticulous approach to cinematic storytelling
- character, plot, cinematography, design, and choreography - all
of it labored over with great patience. The result is entrancing
This is clearly the same transfer
from the original 2003 release. The enhanced widescreen image
is quite good, although black levels falter at times, looking a bit
gray. Frankly, I think this transfer is a bit below the current standard
for SD releases. Five or six years ago, I remember this looking
stellar - now it looks pedestrian. Still, the wonderful photography
by Christopher Doyle is a pleasure to look at, and the transfer, while
not ideal, doesn't really detract from the intended look of the film.
The original Mandarin track
is presented in a very active Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track.
It is a truly enveloping sonic experience, with almost constant surrounds.
Excellent separation and a broad sound stage make for a brilliantly
escapist soundtrack. In addition, dubbed tracks are available
in English, French, and Spanish - all in 5.1, too. Potential buyers should be aware that the previous edition's 5.1 DTS track (in the original Mandarin) has been removed from this release. Another complaint
related to the soundtrack - the English subtitles are obnoxious, yellow,
and a bit pixilated. The inclusion of the original burned-in subtitles
would have been nice, or at least subtler encoding.
For those who own the original
DVD release, the only new item here is a brief featurette called
Close-Up of a Fight Scene (9:18). The title is self-explanatory,
although the featurette is interesting. Each major fight scene
is examined, albeit briefly.
Other than that, the extras
are all ported over from the previous edition. They include the
making-of featurette Hero Defined (24:00), animated film-to-storyboard
comparisons (5:22), and a Conversation with Quentin Tarantino
and Jet Li (13:54). There's also a soundtrack promo
for the evocative score by Tan Dun.
At the risk of repetition,
I'll just bitch for one moment about these extras, which are themselves
fairly repetitious. To be clear, 9 minutes and 18 seconds do not
make a Special Edition. A director's cut might; a new commentary
or two might; but not 9 minutes and 18 seconds. The shameless
marketing of this release flirts with false advertising.
A conflicted reaction makes
for a difficult recommendation. Hero is brilliant, essential
cinema for viewers of all tastes. However, the packaging made
me really angry, and will certainly disappoint fans. For those
who own the previous release, there is no need to get this one.
For those who are new to Hero, I'd seek out the earlier -
and cheaper - release, which includes a DTS track. Still, in a pinch, this not-so-special
edition is recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.