Review of Hero - by Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
Swooningly beautiful, furious and thrilling, Zhang Yimou's "Hero" is an action movie for the ages. Based on the historical legend of China's first emperor--the same tale that inspired Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin"--"Hero" is a wild and lovely fantasia: a feast of lavish visuals and a heart-stopping explosion of cinema pyrotechnics and fight choreography that, in scene after scene, leaves you almost breathless.
Zhang's movie is set 2,200 years ago, during the reign of the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), the emperor who united China and built the Great Wall. And it's about the three master assassins--Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen)--who threaten the emperor's life and the nameless hero (Jet Li) who kills them all.
As stoic as the Japanese samurai of centuries hence, Nameless tells the Emperor of his adventures as they face each other in the King's vast anteroom over a fiery bank of candles. He describes in detail (and flashback) how he out-dueled and killed all three. Apparently, he bested Sky by sheer brute athleticism and the tempestuous killer-lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow by a mix of swordsmanship and psychological cunning--and lessons learned from Broken Sword's other great art, Chinese calligraphy.
But the Emperor is wary. At war with the six other Chinese kingdoms for decades, he trusts no one, especially not this fearsome, quiet warrior. As their conversation continues, the story deepens and changes and, as in Kurosawa's "Rashomon," more and more layers of illusion and reality are peeled away, while a mass of warriors gathers menacingly outside.
"Hero's" framework comes from history, but this film isn't remotely realistic. In the Hong Kong-style fight scenes, combatants sail and swoop through the air like swordsmen-eagles, leaping over mountains and lakes (and deserts that remind you of "Lawrence of Arabia"), while storms of arrows rain from the skies. Sky, Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Snow all engage in deadly gravity and logic-defying battles and so does Moon (Zhang Ziyi), the latter duo's dangerous maid.
Everything is wildly out of scale, loony and exaggerated--yet so masterfully deigned and executed, by Zhang in the dramatic scenes and action director Tony Ching Siu-tung ("Chinese Ghost Story") in the duels and battle scenes, that you're always firmly in this film's grip.
It's a genre movie of the best kind, packed with completely unrealistic yet hypnotically entertaining scenes, a dazzlingly intricate color design and big star personalities (martial arts superstars Li and Yen, Hong Kong dramatic aces Cheung and Leung and prize-winning Chinese TV actor Chen) playing outsize super-hero, super-villain roles. These are actors who are so expert in realism or fantasy (or both), they can convince us of almost anything.
Li, by now a Hollywood regular and international superstar, plays Nameless with the simmering charisma of the three actors who probably inspired the part: Tatsuya Nakadai in "Hara-kiri," Toshiro Mifune in "Yojimbo" and Clint Eastwood in his Leone films. But the other five principals have tremendous screen presence as well; Ziyi, especially, is an unforgettable hellcat.
"Hero" may seem a radical departure for Zhang, China's prime international festival prize-winner, known here primarily for pictorially magnificent period tales ("Red Sorghum," "Raise the Red Lantern") and poignant realist dramas ("Not One Less," "The Story of Qiu Ju"). Yet the same psychological acuity, romantic lyricism, aesthetic brilliance and deep humanity that infuse Zhang's other films permeate "Hero"--and also his more recent Cannes triumph, "The House of the Flying Daggers." Those strengths mesh splendidly with the action-choreography genius of Ching, melding together into a seamlessly lyrical whole.
"Hero," the biggest domestic grosser in Chinese film history (where it was released in 2002), was far more popular with Asian audiences than the huge U.S. martial arts epic hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (That movie was damaged overseas by Cheung's and Chow Yun-Fat's accented Mandarin dialogue, a problem solved here by mass dubbing.) And though "Hero's" huge Chinese success won't be duplicated here, art-house audiences are still in for a thrilling, passionate, sublimely well-executed treat. Life and history were never like this, and neither were heroes and heroines--except in our dreams. But, as "Hero" shows, maybe they should have been.
Directed by Zhang Yimou; written by Li Feng, Zhang, Wang Bin; photographed by Christopher Doyle; edited by Zhai Ru, Angie Lam; production designed by Huo Ting Xiao, Yi Zhen Zhou; music by Tan Dun (violin solos, Itzhak Perlman); action scenes directed by Tony Ching Siu-Tung; produced by Bill Kong, Zhang. In Mandarin Chinese, with English Subtitles. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG-13 (stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality).
Nameless - Jet Li
Broken Sword - Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Flying Snow - Maggie Cheung
Sky - Donnie Yen
King of Qin - Chen Daoming
Moon - Zhang Ziyi