Film & DVD Review
When a severe drought hits Shantung, Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) fled for Shanghai. Upon their arrival they are forced to work as coolies. Ma - a fierce fighter - saves the life of crime boss Tam See (Yuen Biao), and in the process earns the hatred of Tam's rival, Yang Shuang. Ma takes control of a club run by Yam Yueng Tien (Valerie Chow) and soon becomes a famous underworld figure. His swift rise to power leaves him illprepared to deal with Yang's cunning and he must pay a bloody price for his success.
Despite the name, this film has nothing at all to do with the Jet Li's 2002 wuxia epic. This Hero is a far grittier, bloodier, more violent and gloomier piece of film.
In Hero, Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his brother Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) leave Shantung for the potentially far more prosperous Shanghai. With thousands of other people also arriving in Shanghai, work is hard to find, and it quickly becomes clear that the city is extremely corrupt, and is run by a handfull of major gang bosses. The only job the two are able to get is working as coolies, where the pay is incredibly cheap.
"Now this, this is my mean face."
It is in this job that one of the crime bosses comes to Ma Wing Jing's attention. He sees Tam See (Yuen Biao), and envies him for what he has got, and aspires to get that for himself, but quickly learns that the only way to get it in Shanghai is through crime and robbery.
With initial guidance from Tam See, Wing Jing starts to make his move in the criminal underworld, and being an expert fighter soon has his first territory. From their he starts to seize some territories of rival bosses, and his apparent ambition begins to grow too big. Having become one of the major gang bosses, he is considered a threat by all, except Tam See, and soon the other bosses unite against him, under the guidance of Yang Shuang - the most ruthless of all the bosses, and a major rival of Tam See.
"Everyone else is in white... I think I wore the wrong colour!"
Being in league with the Police, their plan to assassinate Wing Jing is just one stepping stone in Yang Shuang's ultimate goal of becoming the one leader in Shanghai, and for this to happen, all the other gang bosses must also be killed.
I'll leave it there regarding the plot. I've missed out some major bits which start early on in the film, but for the basics what I've written gives the gist of the film. Hero is a very violent action film, and with that you get all sorts of violence. Hand to hand combat, weapons and gunplay, all handled very well. Indeed the action is easily the best department of this film. It is all realistically handled, and they did not hesitate in using gallons of fake blood where they deemed it to be necessary! Nor did they feel any particular move was too brutal or gory. There are heads sliced apart in wires, bamboo poles impaled through arms, legs, shoulders and eyes, axes stuck in every part of the body practically, and a healthy dose of arm severing... all with lots of squirting red stuff. The final fight in particular is especially brutal.
"Listen mate, look at me while I'm talking to you, right?!"
So what is the quality of these scenes like? Well I don't know what Takeshi Kaneshiro's background in martial arts is, if indeed he has any at all, but he definitely appears to handle himself very well in the action scenes. The fight scenes are all well choreogrphed, with impressive techniques, and a good fluidity to the scenes. There are possibly too many 'drone' bad guys though, all of which seem to get beaten far too easily. That quibble aside, I thought the fighting was well done.
The gunplay scenes, however, aren't quite as good to watch. Whiel still very brutal, as very large numbers of people get killed (where do the gangs manage to find all the followers?!), they don't come across as being as realistic. The special effects for the bullets firing and hitting someone aren't that great, and again too many people seem to just run into the bullets. Surely everyone, regardless if they are just a low level gang follower, would try and take cover and generally stay alive during gunfights, rather than just running towards guns pointing at them? One of the, possibly, more brutal scenes is during a gunfight where a cannon gets fired at a group of followers, quite literally blowing them into pieces... ouch!
Some advice for anyone going on holiday to Shanghai...
Acting wise, the film does pretty well. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Yuen Biao are convincing in their respective roles, and Valerie Chow is also worth paying special note to in her, "is she evil, is she good" kind of role. The rest all put in decent performances... except Yuen Wah. I just found him, and his character, to be bloody annoying. If I was Ma Wing Jing, I would have ditched him ages ago. He moans, butts in when not needed, and generally causes more trouble for his brother than he is worth.
The biggest flaw in Hero, in my opinion, is the same sort of flaw which plagues a lot of serious films that come out of Hong Kong - the misplaced zany, slapstick humour. If this film was meant to be a comedy, then every scene which I am referring to would be perfectly acceptable. But it is not. It is a very heavily handled martial arts drama. The plot themes are very serious, and everything that happens on screen is gritty and very violent. Having scenes like the one where they think a western bra is a tissue, or the 'brainwashing' Ma Wing Jing scene, ruins the flow of the film. These scenes do not fit in at all with the tone of the film. While they are still funny, particularly seeing Yang Shuang as a glam singer, they are completely out of place here.
Master See thought the axe was a bit much for chopping the char siu.
All in all Hero is a very competent film, which handles things in a far more realistic manner than most martial arts films. Good and bad guys get beaten up, the fights are very brutal, bad guys are bad guys, women are not exempt from crime and punishment, actions have consequences, and nice happy endings don't always exist. If you don't let the poor special effects, in places, or the out of place humour ruin the flow and tone of the film, then I think you will pleasantly surprised by this film, as long as you know that it is going to be really quite gritty and brutally done.
The magicians amazing escape routine wasn't going to plan...
Audio & Subtitles
The audio on Metrodome's release of Hero is Dolby Digital 2.0 Cantonese. And it is nothing special. It sounds ok for the most part, but in some places there did appear to be a definite echo to some of the effects. The film was clearly post-dubbed, as there is very poor lip synchronisation to the speech, something which I really don't like. Other than that, there is very little to comment on.
"It's dark, and I'm wearing sun-glasses... I'm so cool!"
The subtitles are about on par with the audio - not that great, but they get the job done. They are the burnt-in variety, and come simultaneously in Chinese and English. There are a few spelling mistakes, and a few more grammatical errors. This, however, will be nothing to do with Metrodome, as the film print which they had for the film already had the subs authored on it, therefore the blame should go to whoever it was that originally did the subs. Which was probably the production company which originally released the film in Hong Kong. They are a bold white font, and are positioned on the film print, allowing widescreen TV owners to zoom the letterboxed image to fill the whole screen. Unfortunately, the subs don't have a black border, so when the screen is light they are harder to read.
He felt so much better after letting that fart out...
This release of Hero comes with a letterboxed film print, and is a print which looks as though absolutely zero clean up has been attempted on it. There are frequent speckles on screen throughout the entirity of the film, worse in some places than in others. These can get quite annoying, but you just have to force yourself to ignore them, as they are not going away! Clarity wise I was quite surprised. Despite all the speckling on screen, the print did come across as beig quite clear. It wasn't too soft, and I thought there was a reasonable amount of detail on screen. In that area, at least, I was pleasantly surprised! Colours don't appear to be that bold, but that is probably more to do with the film, as it isn't really a film which requires nice bright colours, especially given the seriousness of its content. On the whole though, not a great print, but it could have been worse.
DVD & Extras
The DVD itself is pretty much in the same league as the audio, subs and film print, i.e. not that great but could have been worse. The packaging is uninspiring, and there a few small extras to treat yourself to. You get a photo library (pointless IMO), theatrical trailer (I don't care much for a trailer for a film which I'm about to watch!), cast information (ok) and that is it. Hardly something get excited about.
"I've dropped my sword too often, I have to tie it to me now!"
On the whole, Hero is possibly a film which has been undeservedly overlooked by a lot of people. Yes quite a few fans will have seen due to the inclusion of Yuen Biao, but it is not a film which I have heard much talk about on any of the forums which I use, which is a shame, as I think it is well worth seeing. It has a grittier edge to it than most films around, it contains a decent story, good acting, and comendable action scenes - all elements which together make a good film. It is slightly ruined by the stupid, out of place, humour, but that is not enough to ruin the film. In my opinion, Hero certainly deserves a better DVD release than this. Alas the Universe Hong Kong release is not any better, as it has some severe cuts to remove the gorier and more brutal scenes, so I think this is the best you are going to get... unfortunately.
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