Hero (2004)

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Shades of Gray

Dec 15, 2004
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Thematic depth, visual beauty, and a thought-provoking story.

Cons:Distant characters might be hard for some viewers to relate to.

The Bottom Line: Despite distant characters and a few holes in the plot, this movie has a layered, thought-provoking script and gorgeous visuals. Well worth seeing.


Hero (Ying Xiong) is an undeniably interesting movie. It has its flaws, to be sure. But it is certainly worth seeing for some very strong direction, great visual moments, and thematic depth.

I have heard quite a bit of debate on various newsgroups about the relative merits of Hero compared with the breakthrough hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I will not entirely side with one movie over the other because, quite honestly, I liked them both. Crouching Tiger had its flaws; so does Hero; and each movie's flaws seem almost designed to counter-balance the other film. Hero doesn't have nearly the sense of magic that Crouching Tiger had. On the other hand, Crouching Tiger's narrative is not nearly as cohesive as Hero's story. Hero's characters lack the warmth that made Crouching Tiger so accessible. On the other hand, Hero has far greater thematic depth.

All of which is a very long way of saying that each movie is worth seeing, each movie is good in its own way, and the film world is probably big enough to allow for both of them.

I'll avoid revealing too much about the plot in this review, because much of the film's entertainment value depends on the gradual unveiling of layers. Structurally, Hero amounts to a martial arts version of Rashomon. The film opens with a Nameless Hero (Jet Li) arriving at the court of the King of Qin (Daoming Chen). The Hero is welcomed into the court and allowed to approach the King because of the great deed he has done--he has killed three seemingly-unstoppable assassins who had threatened the king's life for years.

In private audience with the king, we then spend the rest of the movie being treated to the story of how Nameless defeated the three assassins. First, we hear Nameless's version of the story. After Nameless finishes, the Emperor delivers his own interpretation of events. And finally, at the end, the truth is revealed. The bulk of the film is spent within these individual narratives, and as the differing stories unfold, more and more layers of this seemingly simple incident are revealed to us.

It is probably a mistake to think too logically about a film where people fly through the air and deflect thousands of arrows with swords. Nevertheless, I can't help but nitpick that in all three versions, we see scenes that the character relating the story couldn't possibly know. Even when we get The Truth, the character relating "the true story" is offscreen for huge sections of what is being related--the character simply would not have access to this information.

Also, the lead character is referred to as "Nameless," but he might as well have been referred to as "Personality-Less." This is not in any way a flaw in Jet Li's performance. He gives a very appropriate interpretation of the part as written, and brings both athleticism and intensity to the role. Unfortunately, there simply isn't much of a character for him to actually play.

For that reason, Li definitely loses this movie to the supporting cast--particularly to Daoming Chen as the King. The King of Qin begins this movie largely as a caricature: stern, tyrannical, and utterly domineering. As the story proceeds, and the layers are peeled back like the skin of an onion, a more and more interesting character emerges. Apparently, the part was originally supposed to go to Jackie Chan. Thank God Chan turned it down! Jackie Chan is fun in his element, but he is far too instantly likable for the demands of this role. Chen keeps the part mercurial throughout. Even at the end, much of his character is ambiguous. It is largely up to the viewer to decide if the King is a good man or a bad man, whether he's morally strong or morally weak. The ambiguity is well realized, and one of the strongest elements of the movie.

So in summation: an interesting movie, and well worth seeing. I don't quite consider it the awe-inspiring masterpiece some have made it out to be--and there are a few criticisms I've had to restrain simply because much of this film is impossible to discuss without revealing major plot details. But this movie is definitely worth a rental, if only to weigh its merits for yourself.


Rating: ***1/2 out of *****

Directed by: Yimou Zhang. Starring: Jet Li, Daoming Chen, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Donnie Yen.

96 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (a scene of sexuality, stylized violence)


Recommend this product? Yes


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