Hero is the first and only Chinese film I’ve seen, and let me tell you, it gives a very good first impression. It’s an epic on a grand scale, with battles and betrayals befitting the empire that China was soon to become. While the ending turns on a dime and the action is pretty unbelievable, the film is highly entertaining and involving.
Nameless (Jet Li) is defense minister of Qin, the dominant of the seven kingdoms which are to make up the Chinese Empire. He has slayed the three assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Chiu Wai Leung), that aim to take the King’s (Daoming Chen) life. As he retells his story to the king, he suspects that something is amiss. The two trade scenarios back and forth of how Nameless truly killed the three assassins, and why.
The most obvious aspect of this movie is the incredible action. Fighters fly through the air and commit similarly amazing feats. In one fight scene, Broken Sword and Nameless literally walk on water. This is all spectacle, but it works very well on that level. As opposed to the big blockbustery action you see in most films these days, which mainly consist of overdrawn, unintelligible fight scenes and your standard city demolitions, the action you here is never dull and endlessly entertaining to watch. Even better, it’s intimate. While there are parts with huge armies, most of it focuses on the five main characters. Because it’s really hard to avoid respecting these characters, let alone rooting for them, the action scenes become intensely riveting even ignoring the spectacle. Also, they are shot clearly, so any editing that is used is used to pull off a trick, not to make sure the violence seems less violent. (In case you’re worried the fighting is mostly bloodless.)
Any tricks used in the fight scenes, however, are overshadowed by the tricks of the narrative. As Nameless crosses swords with the assassins in the flashbacks, he matches wits with the king as he tries to discover his plan. How did Nameless manage to bring down three deadly assassins? Why did he bother to do so? What does he expect in return? Is this all just another plot to assassinate the King? If so, will Nameless go through with it? As Nameless reveals his version of events, the King counters with what he suspects happened. With each retelling the story is advanced, and the audience is brought closer to the truth. A similar retelling device is used in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but it is used there more to create ambiguity. In Hero, it is used as another battle between Nameless and the King.
What keeps this film from being perfect in my mind is the ending. After the King finally discovers Nameless’s true intentions, they seem like sort of a let down. It’s going to be very difficult not to spoil here, but suffice it to say it makes most of the rest of the movie seem a little wasteful. It sort of pulls the rug out from under the viewer and the engine of the story, but there are still a few cool moments after that. It probably wouldn’t take a ton of convincing for me to reverse my position on the ending, but as I was going through the movie I felt kind of cheated, and for now I’m sticking with that feeling.
So even though the ending didn’t sit too well with me, Hero is an incredible film. Not knowing much about it before I watched it, it completely surprised me. The action is top notch, and the constant rewriting of the story is used to great effect. Hero moves along with a swift pace and can serve as a perfect popcorn movie, but there’s definitely things to think about here as well. It’s impressive on almost every level, and I can’t recommend it enough.
“How swift thy sword.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars