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
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.
Own it today! (Click on item link)|
The Blu-ray Edition DVD + Digital Copy
Presented by Quentin Tarantino
Close-up of a fight scene
Inside the action: A conversation with Quentin Tarantino & Jet Li
"Hero Defined" Making of Featurette
Disc 2: Digital Copy
by Tan Dun
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.
Miramax's Harvey Weinstein credits Quentin Tarantino with much of the
boxoffice success of the film after its two-year delayed release date. In an
evident appreciation of its qualities, Tarantino volunteered to attach the
"Hero" trailer to his "Kill Bill" volumes. That stamp of approval wiped out
the effect of bootleg copies and is probably a major contribution toward
bringing it deserved mainstream attention.
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.
~~ Jules Brenner