The history of martial arts films often makes me chuckle. In the ‘70s, following the Cultural Revolution, both China and Hong Kong produced kung fu films by the dozens to distribute domestically as well as internationally. Many of these movies would wind up playing on triple bills in grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street. A few others would go down in history as cult classics. The rest were forgotten. But not once does my faulty memory cite there being anything as majestic as Hero produced.
Although, one must stop and wonder — if something like it had been made, audiences in the ‘70s would have probably laughed it off the screen. With its high-wire action, classical style music score, and completely implausible action sequences, Hero would have probably been considered the worst kind of exploitation film imaginable: the pretentious kind.
Now, flash forward 30 years later or so. The worldwide success of a pretentious exploitation film called The Matrix led way to a resurgence of interest in martial arts in the cinema. But audiences were no longer clamoring for the cheese-fests that the ’70s and ‘80s are so well-remembered for — they were craving the “artistic” kind of chop-socky flicks, à la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Suddenly, movies like Hero were considered “art.” Go figure.
I was always a fan of martial arts films — particularly the cheesy chop-socky kind. When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out, I too was mesmerized by the new direction that the old formula had taken. Unfortunately, the artsy effect was short-lived with me (as well as many others) — and by the time Hero hit theaters, I was completely bored with the “majestic” or “artistic” sort of martial arts films.
It didn‘t help matters that Hero (Ying Xiong) took two years to receive a debut in American theaters, thanks mostly due to the not-so-tactful efforts of Miramax Films, who constantly delayed the release for one reason or another (it’s a habit with them: they said six years ago they were releasing Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, and we‘ve still yet to see any signs of it). Hence, this was my initial viewing of the film.
The story involves a loner, referred to as “Nameless” (Jet Li), who is invited to a meeting with the emperor (Chen Daoming, voiced by James Hong in the English dub), following his defeat of three skilled assassins (Donnie Yen, Tony Leung, and Maggie Cheung). Nameless recounts his exploits in flashback to the emperor — moving closer and closer to the isolated king with each tale. But soon, the wise ruler begins to suspect that Nameless may not be all that he claims — and that he himself may be an assassin.
I have to say, it certainly is a majestic motion picture. The science of violence is depicted as a regal one, as opposed to a destructive force. Swordplay is on par with the art of calligraphy. And then, just like its low budget counterparts from the ‘70s and 80s, people leap into the air and stay there as long as they see fit. Arrows are launched over staggeringly long distances, gaining enough momentum to break through rooftops — but seldom through walls. But, moreover, Jet Li kicks some serious ass throughout the film, reminding us the entire time that he can play it serious just as well as he can throw a punch.
While some audiences (who would probably be better off seeking the aforementioned “grindhouse” variety of martial arts films) may find the movie a bit slower than they’d expect it to be, Hero succeeds in being the enthralling epic it sets out to be. The photography is beautiful, the stunt work amazing, and the music completely captivates the viewer. All three of those elements are just as effective as ever with this Blu-ray release. The movie is presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio, encoded with a 1080p/AVC transfer. The image boasts some striking colors (particularly the reds), but the video element as a whole leaves something to be desired. The picture doesn’t look as “deep” as it should be — as if you’re still watching it in theaters at times (albeit a very high def one).
For some reason, the English dub soundtrack receives the DTS-HD MA 5.1 Lossless treatment here, instead of the original (and usually preferred) Mandarin DD 5.1 mix. Both the original and the dubbed track come through adequately, although the Mandarin sounds a lot “cleaner” to me. As a side note, I should point out that Hero boasts one of the better English dubbing jobs I’ve heard in recent years: Disney’s decision to hire Asian actors and actresses to loop the dialogue of the onscreen actors was a wise move, indeed — and, while dubbing in general offends purists and perfectionists, the voices sound a lot better than, say, the dubs on Columbia’s recent Godzilla releases. Also included on this Blu-ray are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs, with subtitles in English (SDH), French and Spanish.
All of the special features that were found on Miramax’s 2004 DVD of Hero have been recycled for this Blu-ray release, which include several featurettes (one of which has Quentin Tarantino interviewing Jet Li), a look at some storyboards, and a promo for the film’s invigorating soundtrack — all of which are presented in standard definition and aren’t really worth the effort. An additional featurette is included with this release, but it also didn’t thrill me any and is also presented in standard def.
Okay, so Disney/Miramax didn’t do the best job with their release of Hero on Blu-ray. But, until that far-off day when a “super definitive ultra mega special edition” finds its way to shelves, this “Special Edition” will more than suffice — especially for first-time viewers like myself.