Director    Zhang Yimou
Starring    Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung
4 stars


9th March 2005

Before I go into detail about this DVD, I have a confession to make; I have never, ever liked Martial Arts movies. I never got what the big screaming deal was about seeing an inscrutable hero kick seven shades of unpleasantness out of a gang of remarkably stupid villainous henchmen. Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan...all these people and more have left me cold in film after film.

Which is why I approached Hero with trepidation. After all, it starred Jet Li, current doyenne of the Martial Arts cinema world. My only previous experience of his acting was in Lethal Weapon 4. And, to be charitable, it wasn't his fault that he was lumbered with the poor cousin of an entertaining franchise. In fact, he was one of the few things I enjoyed about that film; anyone who pummels Mel Gibson will have most of England cheering them on.

The film has a straightforward concept; the warlord of the Chin clan in Asia is labouring to unite the disparate peoples of the land under one banner. He is impeded in this goal by having to spend all day, every day, in the middle of an enormous bare room (and I must admit, my first thought upon seeing him was to wonder how he went to the toilet; did he do it there? If so, the subsequent echoing squirty noises filling the cavernous room must have been a joy to listen to; "Harken to our Emperor and his mighty colon!"). He does this because 3 master assassins have targeted him. Spending his days in a huge and empty room guarantees he cannot be snuck up on and surprised. Jet Li plays the Nameless Warrior, who arrives at the court of the warlord to inform him that he has slain all 3 of the assassins. For this, he is rewarded with land, riches, and the right to advance a few yards closer to the Warlord...

Lets get one thing out of the way; despite all my prejudices and low expectations, I absolutely loved this film. The telling and retelling of each aspect of the tale according to perspective will be a familiar device to anyone who watched The Usual Suspects, and the sumptuous look of the film will be comforting to fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, speaking as someone unfamiliar with Chinese cinema in general, I was astonished at how tightly plotted the whole thing was. Not only that, but the fighting was no longer just "the good bit". Rather than having a paper thin concept as an excuse for one gentleman kicking another gentleman in the face ad infinitum, the battles between the various characters are utterly essential to the development of each person. For example, the pared down savagery of Jet Li tells us more of his characters motivation than any amount of exposition (and when he explains what drives his character in just a few sentences, we understand completely because of the way he has conducted himself so far). The brittle elegance of Zhang Ziyi tells us all we need to know about her equally frail emotional state. The same is true of every character we meet during Nameless' story.

This is more than just a martial arts film. In a time when Hollywood's lumpen, leaden attempts at Historical Epic leave one feeling rather embarrassed, Hero delivers nothing less than pure poetry. Every aspect of the film compliments another to become something far greater than the sum of it's parts. It would be an unadulterated joy to watch, were it not for one thing...

Subtitling. Or lack thereof. The copy I watched had dubbed English dialogue. And it tried rather desperately to follow the same speech patterns one would find in Mandarin. This rendered huge chunks of the dialogue comically bad and detracted from the excellent acting on display. If you're going to see this, turn on the subtitles and to hell with the dubbing. If I wanted to hear portentous words delivered poorly, I'd have watched The Chronicles of Riddick. The next time I want to watch a thoughtful yet thoroughly exhilarating film, I'll watch Hero.

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