Hero may have higher production values than many of Jet Li's wuxia films, but I certainly wouldn't say it is at a higher grade. It has larger ambitions and a more epic scale, but the overall result of the final product is very much the same as his earlier works. Hero is the kind of story which would excite audiences familiar with the story it tells as it presents a historical tale with a glamourously stylish technique of filmmaking, but the narrative fails to reach the height of the Zhang Yimou's visionary ambitions.
The story's historical accuracy and overall reality ends up rather fragmented by the intentionally fantastical action scenes. It's difficult to conclude if Hero is a tale of reality or fantasy because the story unfolds like a legend being passed down through the ages that has become glamourized by each generation to the point that the protagonist is a magic man. Given that the story is only inspired by the tale of Jing Ke's attempted assassination of Ying Zheng rather than pretending to be a biographical piece this is forgivable, but the attempts to tie the story into history just get in the way of a film which could have just been a fun action film. It's clear that Zhang Yimou takes Hero very seriously because he wants to engage audiences with the themes of honour and accomplishment in martial arts, but attempts to reach viewers with all this are done through extended periods of rambling with the characters. Hero unfolds as a feature which simply oscillates back and forth between characters fighting and characters talking an endless hypothetical discussion without doing much else in the process. With all this going on at such a slow pace, Hero just proves to drag on without ever developing much narrative ground. I honestly felt like I was just rewatching the same kind of material already explored in Jet Li's Once Upon a Time in China films (1991-1997), except that the focus was far more scattered amid the numerous characters this time around despite the fact that every character was more a representation of some kind of ideal rather than an actual individual.
With Hero, I really found the whole experience perplexing because the film really makes an effort to be serious and intelligent yet also disregards reality or a consistent narrative in attempting to do so. I'm not sure if the film is meant to be a surreal one or meant to be the cinematic equivalent of a poem on martial arts culture, but either way there is not really enough of a story to offer a sufficiently cinematic experience. Perhaps Hero earned a high rank of acclaim due to the popularization of wuxia cinema by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) around the time of Hero's release, but the imbalance of tone made the experience too convoluted to consistently track and too dull for me to care all that much. I could tell that there was a lot of passion in the project from both sides of the camera because the actors are clearly dedicated to the material. But despite a dedicated array of performances from the cast, there is really no room for character development in the narrative. If characters aren't getting into fights, they're going into poetic monologues while remaining completely stationary. Its as if Hero is an audiobook with sporadic fight choreography in there, and one which keeps changing subjects with each chapter while lacking a narrative sufficient enough to tie them all together. There are messages in the screenplay for Hero, but they don't come with a story or any real characters and that's a true disappointment.
Nevertheless, Hero never comes up short with the visuals. The scenery and production design creates a brilliance universe for the narrative while the cinematography captures the scope of its natural beauty with ease. Zhang Yimou proves himself as a clear cut visionary most of all during the fight scenes where the choreography unfolds with such consistent glory without the burden of editing. Occasionally the cinematography shoots everything a little too close for the full spectacle of it all to be captured, but the actors continue to perform with precision throughout it all. Due to the heavy use of strings the material isn't necessarily the kind for action junkies, but it is a powerful spectacle of performance art for those with a strong appreciation for the artistic virtue of martial arts. Hero's most valuable moments come from the action scenes as they offer a firm display of Zhang Yimou's culturally enrichening style of filmmaking.
And even though Hero comes up short on character development, Jet Li has no problem embracing the film's artistic merits. Jet Li remains confident and calm the entire time as he dances his way through the fight scenes with pure speed and strength. His physical capabilities as a martial arts transition into a high calibre performance unlike anything he has done before. It's a style he touched upon in the Once Upon a Time in China films, but far more performance-oriented this time than combat-focused. Jet Li brings something different to every fight, and seeing him pitted against Donnie Yen proves a nostalgic reunion for the time of his breakthrough role in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992). And when it comes to the line delivery, Jet Li speaks everything with a deeply impassioned understanding of the meaning behind it. Even if I personally couldn't keep track of everything happening in Hero, Jet Li's tenacious grip on the deeper dimensions within the story themes offers him a chance to deliver a performance like never before. And with strong line delivery and clear-cut focus, he delivers. Jet Li leads Hero with enough strength to live up to the title.
Hero pits Jet Li's strong charisma and Zhang Yimou's visual expertise together, but the overly hypothetical and convoluted narrative leaves a story as underdeveloped as the characters.
Great visual effects but weak storyline and what lesson do you learn?
No one sticks to their true principles
This movie is a masterwork of Martial Arts choreography and wire-work, cinematography, color scheming, political commentary, theme building, character development, and narritive. All of those things by themselves can make a great movie but in this movie they are used in conjunction so brilliantly that they bring the film to the highest level of achievement.
This movie is beautiful, puzzling, heartbreaking, and challenging.
Watch this movie. If it doesn't make sense, wait a year or two, watch it again. Then wait another few years and watch it again.
TL;DR: Visually beautiful film that tells a story about self sacrifice, passion and choice.