FILM NOVEMBER 30, 2004
Quentin Tarantino may have found his future vocation. His once shining career as a director clouded over a tad when Jackie Brown revealed his insistence on casting B-movie stars of the 1970s and his unwillingness to edit his work to a manageable length. The Kill Bill movies confirmed both directorial tendencies while also raising questions about whether Tarantino still knows how to write a screenplay.
But now, with Hero, the door may have opened onto a new career path: impresario. "Quentin Tarantino Presents," the box cover of the Chinese kung fu epic announces in large type above the title. The names of the movie's stars appear lower down; the director, thrice-Oscar-nominated Zhang Yimou, is not mentioned at all. In theory, Tarantino earned top billing for Hero by persuading his Miramax patrons to distribute the film in the United States. In reality, he's the headliner because he's a brand name in film, perhaps the first director to earn this distinction since Hitchcock (who, it should be said, had exceeded Tarantino's output of five films many times over before he was so honored). "Quentin Tarantino Presents": I envision a television series, like Hitchcock's '50s show--though Quentin's would be on cable, naturally.
Hero, released on video today, would certainly make for a fascinating pilot. It is among the most visually stunning films of recent years, a bravura exercise in the choreography and cinematography of violence that approaches--and on a few occasions exceeds--the beauty of its art-house cousin Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The plot, set in the Warring States period of Chinese history (circa 300 BC), unfolds with a combination of simplicity and complexity reminiscent of Borges (in particular, his stories "The Theme of the Hero and the Traitor" and "The Garden of Forking Paths"). The hero of the title, Nameless (Jet Li), arrives at the palace of the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) to be celebrated and rewarded for his service to the crown. The king has overseen a series of bloody wars in his effort to conquer and unite the seven kingdoms of China and as a result has lived under constant threat of assassination. Until now, that is: Nameless has killed the three most prominent assassins from the enemy kingdom of Zhao--Sky, Flying Cloud, and Broken Sword--and so is granted a royal audience to recount the details of his valor.
The bulk of the film is told in flashbacks that follow the contours of Nameless's conversation with the king. It begins with the hero's straightforward narration: After first dispatching Sky (Donnie Yen) in a lethal ballet of sword and spear, he sowed dissent between the lovers Flying Cloud (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and the latter's apprentice, Moon (Zhang Ziyi); thus divided, the assassins were easy to dispatch. The king is unconvinced by Nameless's story, however, and offers an alternative description of what has taken place--a description that is subsequently amended by Nameless, and so on, with each new telling recasting the story in a different light.
And what light it is! Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle stage the competing sagas of duty, betrayal, and death in dazzling color, with each successive iteration painted in a new palette--first red, then blue, white, green, and finally black. An aerobatic battle between Moon and Flying Cloud takes place amid cyclones of yellow autumn leaves that turn blood red at the encounter's conclusion. Nameless and Broken Sword chase one another across a limpid lake like skipping stones, anointing their blades in the blue water. And a confrontation between the king and Broken Sword pairs the arts of wardrobe and set design to a degree unseen since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. (Wallpaper having yet to be invented, the actors must content themselves with matching the green silk drapes.) There are visual feats less chromatic in nature as well, as when the Qin army launches more arrows into a besieged village in five seconds than it seems all the world's archers have loosed in all the world's wars.
The film overflows with arty touches. Swordplay is compared first to music and then, more evocatively, to calligraphy, an art of which Broken Sword is also a master. Composer Tan Dun supplies a haunting, mournful score reminiscent of the one he provided for Crouching Tiger, though this time with Itzhak Perlman's violin taking the place of Yo Yo Ma's cello. And while Hero never achieves the emotional depth or weight of Ang Lee's masterpiece--in part because of its episodic nature and focus on wire-fu combat; in part because Jet Li, while a superlative athlete, is an impassive, robotic actor--Leung and especially Cheung provide moments of real tenderness and sorrow as doomed lovers Broken Sword and Flying Cloud.
Until the final 15 minutes of its deceptively short hour-and-a-half running time, Hero is a marvel, one of the best films to be released in the United States this year. It concludes, however, on a note both emotionally unsatisfying and morally idiotic, one that offers a disturbing hint of the political mood in the world's largest country. As it's difficult to say more on this topic without revealing a number of crucial plot twists, I'll confine further comment to the second page of this column. Readers who are already familiar with Hero's ending, who dislike surprises, or who don't intend to watch the film regardless can get there from the bottom of this page or by clicking here; those who would rather experience the movie without prejudgment can come back later. In either case, Hero is a film that merits seeing, one simultaneously out of this world and too much of this world.
The Home Movies List:
The Third Man (1949). Not Carol Reed's film--which has one of the greatest endings in movie history--but Graham Greene's original screenplay, which unaccountably inverts the last scene, with Anna taking Rollo Martin's arm (yes, "Rollo," another mistake corrected by Reed) and walking off with him. Who would have thought that Greene, a master of bitter conclusions, would need to be rescued from a bout of happy-endingitis?
Heaven Can Wait (1978). Am I the only one who thinks that if Warren Beatty is reincarnated without his memories--and with another man's in their place--he's not really Warren Beatty anymore? And while it's nice that he (sort of) remembers his attraction to Julie Christie, it's awful that he forgets his friendship with Jack Warden, who as a result loses him not once but twice.
Blade Runner (1982). The insipid, studio-mandated ending of the theatrical release (since removed from the director's cut) is yet another reason why All Test Audiences Should Be Shot. Was Terry Gilliam tweaking this daydream of escape to the sunny countryside in the (properly) bleak conclusion of Brazil?
Moulin Rouge (2001). I'm hard pressed to think of anything sillier than ending a movie in which the characters sing "Like a Virgin" and "Lady Marmalade" with one of the protagonists dying of tuberculosis. Baz Luhrman tells us again and again that Moulin Rouge is a movie about Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love. No, no, no, and no. It's a movie about singing pop songs and living in a four-story-tall, jewel-encrusted elephant. After three disappointing stabs at tragedy (the unwatchable Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and an unremarkable La Boheme on Broadway), it's time for Baz to give comedy another go.
Taking Lives (2004). An excellent example of how the last 15 minutes of a film can elevate it from the merely mediocre to the abjectly awful. This is an ending that truly merits spoiling, so I will: She's not really pregnant! It's a trick to lure the killer back! There. I've saved you the annoyance.
Christopher Orr is a Senior Editor of The New Republic.