Judge David Johnson is a hero. Or he likes to eat hero sandwiches. One of the two.
This land doesn't know a real hero…yet.
Zhang Zimou's martial-arts epic hits Blu-ray and you'd think the high-def format would just get its enveloped pushed by something this visually awesome. You'd be mistaken.
Facts of the Case
A warrior by the name of…well, "Nameless (Jet Li, Fearless)" shows up at the king's palace and brings with him some astonishing news: he's bested the kingdom's finest assassins and the king's most prolific antagonists, earning him an exclusive audience within ten paces of the big man himself. Intrigued as to how Nameless could defeat such powerful adversaries, the king asks the hero to regale him of his accomplishments.
And so he does, offering the 4-1-1 on his badassery. But the king is skeptical and challenges the accounts, engaging Nameless in an exhausting storytelling session, where the truth will remain murky (in a bright red/powder blue sort of way) until the very end, and the true nature of heroism is revealed.
This has always been a difficult movie for me, falling somewhere in between "I like it" and "I kind of like it." The difficulty comes from why exactly Zhang Yimou's admittedly gorgeous and visionary epic doesn't blow my skirt up.
I mean it's got Jet Li, one of my favorite martial arts icons. Donnie Yen's in it too, along with Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Tony Leung, heavy hitters of Asian cinema to be sure. So the star power is there, as well as the visuals. Toss in a Yo-Yo Ma-ish score that sounds eerily like the composition of Crouching Tiger and the total should absolutely add up to a winner.
But it doesn't. I think the major issue I have with the production is that it tries too hard. I'll stop short at affixing the "pretentiousness" label, because I don't get that. Over-indulgent? That might work. You've got battles that go on solely in the minds, a fight scene on water, calligraphers versus an army of archers, all shot in fawning, slow-motion, that score just draping itself over the visuals. While I think the story is strong and cleverly told, the fight scenes kept everything detached. It's fantasy, I know, but these set-pieces were less bouts and more precisely staged performance art; ballet with swords, staffs, arrows, and the occasional big-ass paint brush. I can dig some of it, but that's all there is in Hero and the result is a significant dearth of stakes and consequences. These dudes are bouncing off of a lake with their sword tips! Where's the tension? Answer: there is none, leaving passive observation the only option for the viewer.
All that sounds negative and I don't want to end on a downer, especially as a less-than-jazzed take on the technical merits awaits in the next paragraph. In many ways Hero is an accomplished, jaw-dropping film. It just left me cold.
I'll tell you what leaves me frigid though: this Blu-ray. If any film was built to shine in HD it's this, but the visual fidelity is severely wanting. Some moments sparkle, like the assault on the calligraphy school. The arrows, the vast numbers of soldiers, it all looks pretty solid. But then you get to something like the water fight—arguably one of the most visually ambitious in the film—and we're talking upconverted standard-DVD quality. Details get murky, colors are flat, and resolution devolves before your eyes. I know this is a catalog release, but there have been too many sterling catalog treatments released on Blu-ray for Hero to lean on that excuse. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio fares better, putting out a clean and aggressive mix that suits the on-screen moods well.
Extras: two featurettes—one looking at the make-up of a fight scene, the other an overall behind-the-scenes doc—an interview with Jet Li and Quentin Tarantino, and storyboard collections. A Digital Copy also comes with the release.
When I first heard about this film, my anticipation hit critical mass. Alas, the final experience—like the Blu-ray—did not measure up to my expectations.
The feature is released for okay behavior, but we'd like to see Miramax after
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2009 David Johnson; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.