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Hero (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/02/04 01:50:10

"Did I mention that I like it?"
5 stars (Awesome)

The simple fact of the matter is this: “Hero” is the best martial arts movie I have ever seen. And I’ve seen me a lot of martial arts movies, so this is no small compliment. Like the best entries in its genre, “Hero” is more than some generic action flick. This is brilliant cinema, a breathless combination of fight choreography and philosophical contemplation, served up on a canvas that overwhelms the senses with its sheer beauty.

Of course, it’s a shame to stick it with the obvious “Crouching Tiger” comparisons it’s bound to receive; despite the swordplay, the wire fu, and the art house credentials, these are two entirely separate works. Still, in a country where few Asian films make a splash in the mainstream, moviegoers who aren’t familiar with the wide range the genre presents may require a comparison after all. To them, I say simply that the gorgeous love story fantasy that is “Crouching Tiger” makes a wonderful introduction to the world of art house swordplay, while “Hero” is an improvement on it - a broad, glorious epic that transcends genre while working entirely within it. This film, directed and co-written by art houser Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Road Home”), combines the massive sweep of an oversized “cast of thousands” production with the gentle intimacy of a character study, all while dazzling us with cinematic tricks both big and small. In other words, this is one of those films that remind you why you love films in the first place.

It’s also easy to compare “Hero” to another famous import: “Rashomon.” Like Kurosawa’s classic, the story here gets told and retold, varying on the teller. But while the older film deals with notions on perspective, “Hero” deals entirely with matters of truth and fiction, namely, the restructuring of a story by two separate tellers, one of whom catches on to the other’s lies.

The plot finds us in ancient China, back when the nation was separated into several warring lands. Into the palace of the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) comes a man known only in Eastwoodian terms as Nameless (Jet Li, in a performance so sharp that it singlehandedly makes up for every bad American flick he’s ever made), who claims to have killed the land’s three deadliest assassins. The King asks him to tell his story, which he quickly learns may not entirely be accurate. Being a wise man, the King then offers his own interpretation of Nameless’ adventures.

This refolding of the plot offers us not only a chance to deduce the truth (the script plays like a cracking mystery), but it also allows Yimou to tinker with the visuals. Every tale gets its own unique color scheme, the screen popping with bright greens, deep reds, eerie whites. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, costume designer Emi Wada, and art designer Huo Tingxiao deserve extra credit for helping Yimou transform an elegant swordplay epic into an explosion of cinematic wonder. If ever a movie was meant to express everything film has to offer visually, “Hero” is it.

Of course, the killer fight sequences don’t hurt much, either. The connection between effective fight choreography and dance has been made for ages, but it’s worth bringing up again here. To see how effortless the fight scenes play is to see how much work goes into a great action film. This is a ballet, and the dance of swords on display here is a thing of sheer beauty.

The trick to making this all click lies in the most overlooked aspect of any martial arts movie, namely, the cast. Li and Dao Ming provide excellent interplay, two men who are desperate to read the other without revealing their own secrets in the process; their scenes together make you lean forward and pay extra attention. Meanwhile, Yimou stacks his supporting cast with some of China’s best, including Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen, and Tony Leung, all of whom bring strong characters into the mix. Underneath all the visual flash and storytelling zing, there’s the story’s true base: solid characters whose real emotions enhance every sequence. With a lesser cast, this movie may have fallen apart; with these names in the credits, the film only grows stronger.

So with a brilliant visual style, a whipsmart screenplay, expert direction, and finely tuned acting, is there anything else that “Hero” could possibly offer? As a fatter of fact, yes. Rare is the action film that leaves you thinking, but here is a work that dares to examine grand notions of laying down your life for a greater cause - or daring to take a life for that same cause. Can such a thing as death lead to a greater good? Are the final scenes propagandistic in its ideals about the origins of China as one nation? There are no clear answers, only questions.

Yimou paints with broad strokes and leaves us debating every minor detail. His “Hero” is more than just a martial arts movie, more than just an epic, more than just an exercise in cinema. It is, to use a word that’s thrown around too much these days, a masterpiece. This is grand, glorious filmmaking, the kind that never gets tired, the kind that only grows with each passing viewing.

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