HERO is no surprise. I knew I was gonna like this movie. I heard enough to know this was gonna be a good one. I mean it’s got that acclaimed director who did all those movies I haven’t seen like THE ROAD HOME. But then instead of doing another movie like that, what he does, he gets Jet Li and Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen and Zhang Yiyi and he says, let’s do an awesome fucking epic with kung fu and swords and about ten million arrows.
This movie has been making the rounds for years. It got nominated for the foreign film oscar, and it played the seattle international film festival, and it’s been on DVD in Asia forever which is no problem for a worldly dude like me, I’ve been free of the region code shackles for years. Region 2, region 3, bring it on motherfuckers, I go all the way up to region 4, region 5 on a good day. I could do region 10 if they threw it at me, region 11, I don’t give a fuck. Anything. But here in region 1 Miramax was supposed to release HERO in theaters. What they wanted to do was leave it on the shelf for years and finally put it out when there’s less interest. That worked so well with SHAOLIN SOCCER. Unfortunately HERO was sitting on the shelf but then it fell off the shelf and got stuck behind the desk and nobody knew it was there. Then I think Tarantino dropped a pencil back there or something, so he reached back there and he felt HERO. So he pulled it out and dusted it off and he was like, “You guys still have this? You should, like, release it in theaters, where people go to watch movies projected on a screen.”
That was a few weeks ago and it turned out Tarantino was right, people wanted to see this movie and it’s been doing very well. No thanks to me. I kept not seeing it and not seeing it.
In a way it kind of shows how cool I am, here is this great movie that everybody loves and I’m like, yeah, I know, masterpiece. I’ll see it later. I gotta watch FRANKENFISH. I knew it was there but I left it unseen, I wanted to save it for later. Who knows when you’re gonna need to see HERO for the first time. Well yesterday I finally figured the time was right, we had come to the point in our relationship where we should take it to that next level, sit down together in a theater and make visual contact.
And shit, not that I flinched or anything but MAN what a great fuckin movie. Jet Li plays the HERO of the title, a man with no name who has just killed the 3 deadliest assassins in China. As his reward, he gets to sit within 100 paces of the king. And what he does, he tells the story of how he killed those assassins. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, and you figure out pretty quick that the other duels were a way to get him into the palace so he himself could assassinate this bastard. Because of what he did to his people, etc.
This is one of my favorite have-your-cake-but-also-eat-the-cake type of movies where it’s all about super badass violence but ultimately is literally about laying down your sword. So you get the satisfaction of standing up against violence but the enjoyment of watching lots of violence first.
I don’t know if anybody’s reading modern politics into this story. There are some definite parallels, but I think it would be giving Bush too much credit to compare him to this king who thinks he can create peace by unifying China – i.e. slaughtering thousands to conquer all the bordering countries (and he doesn’t want to stop there). The big difference between this guy and Bush is that this guy’s plan works, and his wars even go well. Anyway, it’s some interesting political themes, whether you choose to apply it to current events or not.
The fight scenes in this movie are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They use the wires but not the way so many other people use them these days. They just use them for otherworldly effects like leaning over farther than gravity allows or running across water. But most of this is sword fights, and they are swinging those swords so fast and hard you’d think somebody would’ve lost a few fingers during the filming. Probaly not though otherwise I’m sure we would’ve heard something in the news about Jet Li’s fingers going up on e-bay or something.
So it’s a good epic chinese history/mythology type story with classic fight scenes, but then the acclaimed-director-who-let’s-face-it-I-am-not-at-all-familiar-with takes it to the next level with an incredible use of color and sound. It’s all about the huge spectacle (armies of thousands holding up bright red banners, shooting a thousand arrows all at once) and the tiny details (splitting a single hair during a sword fight). It’s about sounds, like 300 wooden paintbrushes pinging as they’re dumped on the floor, or 70 candle flames fluttering at the same gust of wind. It’s about using a sword to deflect an avalanche of arrows, or to slice through droplets of water mid-air.
Also for the ladies, there is one part where it shows Jet Li’s ass.
So yes, this is a real classy and well crafted kung fu epic. The only movie anybody would compare it to is CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. It’s shorter and less complicated but in some ways even more awe inspiring. I would like to thank Miramax for finally doing the right thing and releasing the fucking thing. Yeah, they put Tarantino’s name on the ads, but at least not on the movie itself. And they didn’t add any DMX songs to the soundtrack. I mean I gotta be honest, I’m surprised they didn’t look into adding a few reaction shots from Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson and calling it CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE: THE BEGINNING.
I don’t want to sound naive, but it’s amazing to me that Jet Li can do a movie like this and then just go back to America and do CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE. You’d think he’d want to stay in Hong Kong and count his blessings. Who wants to be in a cage swingin a midget around while DMX is riding a four wheeler across the rooftops being chased by the cops and professional motocross racers in their full uniforms? I mean seriously, who needs that kind of stress? Not Jet Li.
And what about Ching Tsiu-Tung? He’s choreographing these incredible swordfights, the very next year he’s doing BELLY OF THE BEAST, he’s got Steven Seagal standing in one place punching his opponents when they swing close enough to him. Like fucking tether ball.
I’m not stupid, I know why they do it is they do it for the money. But you don’t just roll over for injustice like this. This just plain should not be happening, period. Your mom shouldn’t have to sell her ass to put food in your mouth, and these guys shouldn’t have to work with Tom Arnold after making a movie like this. Just think about it. Kurosawa didn’t have to come to the US and do a couple PORKY’S sequels to keep his career going, did he? The world doesn’t have to be this way. I see a better tomorrow. Lay your sword down, Jet Li, and take off your sunglasses. You are no longer the property of Hollywood. Fly away Jet Li. We love you, so we set you free.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.