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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/18/04

2002 (2004) - Elite Group Enterprises/EDKO Films (Miramax)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround


Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): C+/C-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A

Specs and Features

99 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), keepcase packaging with slipcase, Hero Defined production featurette (24 mins - 16x9, DD 2.0), Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li interview featurette (13 mins - 4x3, DD 2.0), storyboard-to-film comparisons for 4 scenes (Golden Forest, Library, Ring of Iron and Lake - 5 mins total, 4x3, DD 2.0), chapter selection insert, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (14 chapters), languages: Mandarin (DD & DTS 5.1), English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0 Surround), subtitles: English, English (for the hearing impaired) and Spanish, Close Captioned

2,000 years ago, China was a land divided into seven separate states gripped in a constant state of war. Among their leaders, only the ruthless King of Qin held the goal of uniting these states into a single, great nation. But the sole path to this future lay in many years of conquest and bloodletting, and the King was hated throughout the land. Many attempts had been made on his life, by ruthless assassins from the other states - assassins known by names like Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Then one day, a warrior with no name is given an audience with the King. It seems he has single-handedly defeated all three of these great assassins. Nameless tells the King how he defeated the assassins, but does he speak the truth? And why did he defeat them? As the answers to these questions gradually unfold in a series of flashbacks, the mystery and beauty of HERO is revealed.

HERO is a remarkable film. This is certainly an actioner, of the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it goes well beyond that film in audacity and scope. HERO is a stunning meditation - a kind of epic ballet of love, honor and loyalty, told through a near perfect blending of movement, color and meaning. Jet Li stars here as Nameless in a role that elevates him above the ranks of the simple action star. Other standouts in the cast include longtime HK familiar Donnie Yen (known to American audiences for his role in Blade II), Zhang Ziyi (whom you'll recall from the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Maggie Cheung (previously seen in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love). But it's the film's stunning production design and cinematography that will leave you breathless. This is visual poetry, pure and simple. Directed by Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern fame), HERO probably isn't to everyone's taste, but it remains one of the best films we've seen in some time.

As you may recall, a few months ago after Matt and I first saw this film in the theater, I noted in my daily column that when Miramax finally got around to releasing this film on disc, the transfer had damn well better sparkle. Sadly, HERO does not sparkle. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Color is generally excellent. Contrast is also very good, and while there's notable film grain visible, it's appropriate to the original theatrical presentation. The problem here is that, like so many of Miramax's recent DVD releases, the video has a slightly too soft and slightly too "digital" look about it. It just isn't as clean and vibrant as it should be. It's very strange - it almost looks like a high-frequency filtering pass was done after the transfer to reduce film grain, then edge-enhancement was added to increase detail and the whole mess was then over compressed - Robert Harris has noted similar problems on Miramax DVDs in a recent column). There's visible MPEG-2 compression artifacting in chapter 6 for example, during the battle in the leaves, and in other places as well. When there's little in the way of onscreen movement, the image looks just fine. But when you start to have a lot of complex movement, the image is average at best. In fact, average is probably the best way to describe this DVD in a lot of ways. Don't get me wrong - there's a whole bunch of you who watch movies on a 32-inch TV, and you're going to look at this DVD and go, "What the hell is he talking about? It looks fine!" But for those of you who demand more performance from your DVDs, and who watch them on large front or rear projection systems, you're going to be disappointed with the quality here. I can't tell you how much I wish this film was a Columbia TriStar title so it could get the Superbit treatment.

The audio is the sole area in which this disc excels. The film's original Mandarin soundtrack is presented in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround (optional English subtitles are included). The DTS in particular is outstanding. The soundfield is smooth and natural, with tremendous ambience and terrific low frequency reinforcement. Listen for the subtle dripping of water all around in the House of Chess scene, for example, or the pounding beat of war drums when the Qin army attacks. The sounds of swordplay are crisp and airy, just as they should be. On the audio front at least, you're going to be very pleased. Dubbed English 5.1 audio is also available, although why you'd want to listen to that I don't know.

The extras, unfortunately, are average at best. There's a fairly straightforward "making of" featurette (Hero Defined) that runs about 24 minutes. It's moderately interesting, but just as it's starting to really get to the meat of what you want to know about... it moves on to the next topic. Surely there must be more on-set footage available for this film! How about a look at the staging of the massive armies? How about a more in-depth examination of the wire-fu process? How was digital enhancement used to achieve the final look of the film? What was the rational behind the color schemes in the film, and how was that achieved through cinematography and production design? Those are just a few of the things I want to learn more about with HERO. Instead, what you get amounts to interview clips with the director (and a few of the cast and crew) intercut with quick glimpses of generic production video - just superficial stuff. Anyway, at least it's 16x9.

In addition to the main featurette, there's also a 13-minute "conversation" between Quentin Tarantino and actor Jet Li. Basically, it's Tarantino gushing about Li's work and the HK/action genre, while Li occasionally reveals an interesting bit of information. Every now and again you get a clip from one of the films they're talking about. It gets a little better toward the end, when it becomes a little more of a behind-the-scenes on HERO. You've got to appreciate Tarantino's enthusiasm for this material, but someone shot much of this thing shaky-cam style and with a dolly that keeps tracking back and forth, and you wish the camera operator would just lock the damn camera down and let the discussion speak for itself.

The final bonus item here is a very short set of four storyboard-to-film comparison videos. These would be great... except they run less than 5 minutes in all and they're digitally compressed to hell so you can't really even appreciate the storyboard art. Oh... and you get a TV spot shilling the film's soundtrack CD. Joy.

Somebody at Miramax needs to get their head screwed on straight. See those five stars on the cover art? The film deserves them, but this DVD sure doesn't. HERO should have been presented all by itself on a dual-layered disc, so the video bitrate could have been maxed out. The extras should have been handled as more than just an afterthought and should have been included on a second disc. A soundtrack spot? Seriously? Miramax, what the hell were you guys thinking? Nobody that's going to be interested in buying this film is going to give a rip about the soundtrack commercial. What about theatrical trailers? What about the reams of production design artwork that must exist for this film? What about an audio commentary with the cinematographer, or a film historian, or a few of the stars who speak English, or... hell, even Tarantino?

HERO was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film a couple of years ago. It deserves MUCH better treatment than this from Miramax. And the studio desperately needs to rethink their telecine and compression process. The video quality on their DVDs just doesn't stack up against the work being done by any other major studio. I'm getting sick of seeing so many of their great films looking simply average on DVD.

Bill Hunt
[email protected]

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