Martial Arts Smash

The record-breaking 'Hero' deserves most of the acclaim it's getting

For a couple of years, word on the street has been touting a martial arts film that would become the crowning achievement of the genre, a film of intense beauty and majesty, surpassing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in all aspects. That film is Zhang Yimou's Hero, starring, of all people, Jet Li, and it's already an artistic success. (It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar a couple of years ago.)

Finally, American shores greet the film, which was previously available on European DVD but never had a U.S. release. Miramax has slapped a "Quentin Tarantino Presents" on the picture and given it a wide release. This resulted in a big opening weekend--in fact, a record opening for an Asian film. Props to the marketing folks at Miramax for picking the right time to spring this on the public.

Is it better than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? In my opinion, no. Is it a film that deserves high regard within the genre, making it pretty damn impressive in its own right? You bet.

Li plays Nameless, a sheriff on a mission to kill potential assassins pursuing the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming). Nameless appears in the King's palace, where he tells the story of defeating his targets in flashback form. The King doubts the story, and he offers up his own hypothesis about the deaths of Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Long Sky (Donnie Yen) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi). This enables Yimou to stage multiple battles to the death with the same opponents, their motives and personalities changing with each version of their demise.

Yimou uses this tactic to stage some of the more beautiful battle scenes ever to grace a martial arts film. As Li battles his opponents, the color schemes change as the opponents are shown in different emotional states, depending on which version of their death is being described by Nameless or the King. Yes, warriors do take to the air and fly ala Crouching Tiger, so the same folks who pissed and moaned about how such a special effect ruins the intensity of a martial arts film might say the same about Hero.

What Hero lacks is some of the emotional depth that would make it a more complete picture and that made Crouching Tiger so epic. The method in which it tells its story, through multiple flashbacks, is at once innovative and just a tad tedious at times. Li is an excellent physical actor, but his emotional acting capacity does not match that of Michelle Yeoh or Chow Yun Fat. The two films do share a major star, Zhang Ziyi, who, not surprisingly, is responsible for the more emotionally resonant moments in Hero.

There are sequences that match or even surpass anything I've seen in prior martial arts epics. When Nameless battles Broken Sword while skipping across a crystal clear lake, it represents a landmark in cinematic battle staging. When Nameless and Flying Snow fend off thousands of arrows fired by an oncoming army, it's an exhilarating sight. Credit Yimou and his crew for making these moments look as if they belong in a film and not some flashy video game.

The shortcomings of Hero are not fatal. This is a very good movie that regrettably falls a bit short of true masterpiece filmmaking because of a few missing ingredients. Yimou already has another film (House of Flying Daggers, also starring Ziyi) due out by the end of the year, and Internet buzz says it's pretty darned good. Two big movies in one year makes Yimou the Spielberg of China.

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