Hero (2002) Movie Review

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After political (Raise the Red Lantern), sexy (Ju Dou) and reflective (The Road Home) films, writer-director Zhang Yimou embraces the aerodynamic action of digitally enhanced kung fu swordplay made famous in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The object here is to outdazzle that genre landmark and, perhaps, to outdo it at the box office.

It's probably too late and too familiar a technique to do either, but there's plenty to admire despite those limitations, for which it has already received critical and award level acclaim. At the time of this writing, it is one of the 2002 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.

The poetic allegory takes for its basis one of many legends surrounding the reign of the tyrannical King of Qin, Chin Shi Huang Di (Daoming Chen), in the third century B.C., the distinguishing characteristic of which are the many attempts to assassinate him. It seems these folks know what they'd like to do with an evil ruler (Iraq, are you listening?). But, after three of the most renowned sword masters in the kingdom try and fail, the wily king, no swordplay slouch himself, puts out a contract on the assassins' lives.

As the movie begins, a heretofore unknown swordsman with the name of Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the castle gate claiming to have fulfilled the seemingly impossible assignment and is brought into the presence of the king, at a considerable, safe distance.

With his telling of each swordfight victory, he provides the vanquished assassins' swords as evidence of his successes, and with each story the small town lawman is allowed closer to the throne. With this ever diminishing proximity, we begin to suspect that Nameless himself is an assassin with a plan cleverer than his predecessors'. Gain an audience with the highly protected king with the only strategy available: Get closer to him than his guards; slit throat.

But the king, in a bit of allegorical mind-reading, catches on as swiftly as we do, and in Rashomon-like retelling, imagines the scenarios of battle with different colorations than those of the martial arts storyteller. Even then, despite the deceptions, the king can't help respecting the full package of skills this sword master has brought before him.

Yimou's cast is as thoroughly charismatic as it is athletic, with Tony Leung (as Broken Sword), Maggie Cheung (as Flying Snow), and Donnie Yen (as Sky) making possible the gravity defying choreography by stunt specialist Siu-Tung Ching. Jet Li's composure is magnetic in a role far more compelling than his Cradle 2 the Grave appearance. Completing the ensemble is Ziyi Zhang as impetuous, beautiful Moon, Broken Sword's devoted disciple, similarly accomplished in exploiting the stunt harness that sends these combatants over trees and into the skies with poetic exhilaration.

Unfortunately, it's overdone. Subtleties have been abandoned in much of the fight gymnastics, allowing you to virtually "see" just how the actors were suspended in space by the digitally deleted cables. The technique is a great addition to the lexicon of fight dynamics on film, but its practitioners are well advised to tone it down before it gets embarrassing.

While action is the main attraction here, one also savors moments of sustained silence when stoic Li and his adversaries arrange their pre-combat thoughts in Zen-like concentration. Such directorial choices contribute to the film's uniqueness of style and character, artfully revealing that there is an unwritten "code of combat" among these preeminent competitors. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle takes full advantage of the splendor of the material and the inspiration of an exceedingly visual director by enhancing the magnificence in art direction (Tingxiao Huo) and staging.

While comparisons to Crouching Tiger might be expected, this is an allegory with its own integrity, told with a spirited and accomplished ensemble, and it should be regarded on its own terms. It includes a political polemic Yimou is pushing, and one might hope the right people receive the message about the comparative efficacies between tyranny and governance... a provocative thought to pose in such a contentious framework.

The DVD adds a conversation between Quentin Tarantino (who "presents" this title) and Jet Li, plus storyboards, a longish making-of documentary, and an optional dubbed English track.

Aka Ying xiong.

We're betting on the man in black.

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Hero (2002) Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2002

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