The Heroic Ones Review
From celebrated director Chang Cheh comes this historical epic, The Heroic Ones. The story told centres around 13 brothers who act as devoted sons and loyal generals to their father, a Mongol King who is preparing to launch a massive strike on his enemy, General Wang. Before the action begins we are introduced to the 13 sons (both actual and adopted) as they enjoy a lavish banquet where a local warlord, Zu Wen, is dining and offers his alliance to the Mongol King. Showing their boyish nature to the full the 13 sons leave Zu Wen unconvinced of their ability, so a demonstration is in order. The thirteenth son is elected for the task and puts on a fine exhibition of his formidable martial arts ability to Zu Wen, but in the process manages to insult and disgrace the local warlord. This proves to be an act that brings with it greater repercussions later in the story as the alliance lays fractured and intentions are left unclear.
This demonstration of ability also has an upside in the form of a secondary result, that of capturing one of General Wang's most powerful men. With this obstacle removed from the path of General Wang the Mongol King expresses the faith he has in his sons, as despite commanding thousands of troops he selects just nine of them to set out on a covert mission to take advantage of the situation and assassinate the General. It is from this point on that the underlying theme of sibling rivalry becomes apparent and not long after it is revealed does it become the centre point of the films remaining runtime. From the very start it is apparent that Jin Su (Ti Lung) and Chun Xiao (David Chiang) are the two most experienced and therefore, most applauded sons. A reality that is accepted by nine of the brothers, though two are uneasy operating in the shadows. When these two inadvertently sabotage the assassination of General Wang the Mongol King demands their death as punishment, fortunately the most respected of the sons, Chun Xiao, begs his father to have mercy, an event that results in a bitter twist of fate later in the story.
With their fathers disapproval hanging over their heads further treachery is indeed afoot, but to reveal anymore would do Chang Cheh's movie a disservice, as despite a few flaws in its method of storytelling The Heroic Ones proves to be an exciting romp. At the forefront of this excitement are David Chiang and Ti Lung, director Chang Cheh's protégés and part of what was known as the "iron triangle". These two actors are quite simply outstanding in their roles as physically gifted brothers who are loyal to the end, and the level of action each sees in this admittedly lengthy film is still quite astonishing. Ti Lung in particular has a quite riveting 'fight' that lasts a good ten minutes and sees him take on literally hundreds of enemies using his weapon of choice, the spear. His conviction in these scenes is what really steals the show, though the action choreography is also of a high quality with a very solid approach that combined with the savage bloodletting he dishes out makes for a truly enjoyable sequence. David Chiang also enjoys spraying blood around the screen and while he never gets a sequence quite as epic as Ti Lung, he certainly gets the most action overall and is equally effective with his double edged spear, while his trampoline assisted acrobatics add that extra bit of fun to the proceedings.
There is of course plenty more here to revel in. The acting from the main players is as solid as ever while the brief introduction of a love interest for David Chiang provides the male audience with a chance to go all doe-eyed over the beautiful Lily Li, while everyone else can enjoy the brief sparks of chemistry seen onscreen (and it is oh-so brief). On the other end of the spectrum is the aforementioned 'savage-bloodletting', of which there is enough to go around with one key sequence towards the end of the film evoking an audible response from myself as it involves a key character meeting an untimely demise in a most horrible manner. Much like the other Shaw Brothers movies I have now enjoyed via these new Celestial range of releases, The Heroic Ones also impressed in terms of set design, use of camera and cinematography, though some of the 'day for night' shots ruin the illusion somewhat.
The only real complaints I can level at The Heroic Ones would be the slightly confusing start to the proceedings, the pace at which events unfold and an ending that is let down by poor character development. Tackling these points one by one I found that much like Killer Clans Chang Cheh's film could at times be difficult to follow, mostly because the history which the film is depicting is quite obviously foreign to me and the number of names and characters that are thrown at you requires far more concentration than any martial arts movie fan ever thought they would need. This in turn effects the pacing of the movie that is in itself slightly laborious for what is essentially an action movie, but then just like Killer Clans I found that on subsequent viewings The Heroic Ones was a smoother ride as character associations are already known to you, and thus require less thought.
What proves to be the biggest letdown of an otherwise entertaining movie is the finale that suffers at the hand of some poor character development in the early stages of the proceedings. When you consider the fact there are thirteen main characters it is no surprise that some are better developed than others, so it is all the more unfortunate that the ending features several of the less developed characters and as such the events that unfold mean very little to you. This results in a climax that offers a fine bout of martial arts action but lacks any real emotional punch as you sadly do not care who lives or dies.
Published by IVL in Hong Kong and produced by Celestial Pictures Ltd this Region 3 DVD is part of a new range of restored Shaw Brothers classics.
The Shaw Brothers range of releases all use clear armaray cases with an outer cardboard sleeve that uses a high quality piece of artwork. The rear cover contains a synopsis and disc details in both Chinese and English languages along with a small reproduction of the original movie poster art. Inside the case you will find a 'Shaw Brothers Films DVD Catalogue', a questionnaire, and of course the disc with full colour label artwork. The only minor flaw to my mind is the lack of interior sleeve art, which is always a welcome bonus when using clear armarays.
Upon inserting the disc you will be given the choice between a Chinese or English language menu, meaning the discs are easy to navigate for both Chinese and English persons.
Presented in the original 2.35:1 Widescreen aspect ratio but sadly not featuring Anamorphic Enhancement this is still a fine effort from the team at Celestial. The print sourced for this 1970 title is in quite amazing condition, yes it still contains signs of wear and tear with some dirt present and a few frames where something more sinister is at work, but on the whole it looks incredibly good for a film of this period. Digitally remastered you can expect to find bold colours and deep blacks on your screen while the level of detail present is impressive, but obviously hindered by the lack of those extra lines Anamorphic Enhancement brings. Still, when zoomed in on a 32" Widescreen set the picture holds up very well and remains clear and sharp, while the compression stands up to the test with the only noticeable flaw being some minor pixellation in one of the night sequences.
The original Mandarin language audio track is provided here in a DD5.1 remix that offers another fine representation of the original mono audio. As the film has a quite energetic score this remix has opted to make more use of the rear speakers than usual as it projects the score around the room. This is handled particularly well as it is only the slightly harsh tone of the music that betrays the age of the source.
While there are no signs of the 'repeating lines' syndrome as found with Come Drink With Me and Killer Clans, the subs here are still very much of that well known 'Hong Kong' standard. The grasp of English grammar, spelling and flow is not quite up to scratch, though it is consistent with most recent Hong Kong DVD releases ('fiend' instead of 'friend' is a good example, errors that a spellchecker would miss) and as these faults are few in number should not cause any problems to both old and new visitors to the region. Like the other 2.35:1 Widescreen releases from Celestial the subtitles are positioned so as to be Widescreen (Zoom) friendly.
Of the three commentary tracks Bey Logan contributed to the initial batch of Celestial/Shaw Brothers DVD releases this is the last one I sat down to listen to, so it seems I saved the best till last as the depth of the material he covers is impressive. Taking a similar approach to that of his earlier HKL commentaries where he presumed the listener was not fully educated in the life and careers of the movies cast and crew, Bey delivers reasonably in-depth biographical information on actors Ti Lung and David Chiang, director Chang Cheh, and action choreographers Lau Kar-Leung and Tong Gaai. Living up to his reputation in audio commentaries Logan is as entertaining as ever and has a huge amount of incidental information to impart on us amongst the interesting biographical information he concentrates on, all of which makes this a track you will come back to from time to time.
The Interviews section is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen and features five speakers, though two of these are in their native Chinese language so without English subtitles are of little use to myself and most of those reading. For reference these interviews are with actors David Chiang (9:16mins) and Lily Li (7:19mins). The remaining interviewees conduct their sessions in English, the first of which is an interview with Daniel Wu (8:02mins). Here Wu basically offer his thoughts on The Heroic Ones and while it is certainly worth viewing, your interest in it will depend largely on your opinion of Daniel Wu himself (who is one of the better young actors in Hong Kong movies at this time and probably best known to UK audiences through the HKL DVD of Purple Storm). The last two interviews are with British film critics who are based in Hong Kong, the first being Paul Fonoroff (3:50mins) who talks about Shaws history while the second is Bey Logan (2:31mins) who, returning from his audio commentary duties offers some further thoughts on The Heroic Ones. Both critics are extremely knowledgeable though their segments are both quite short while Logan is understandably repeating what he has already covered in much greater detail in the audio commentary.
The Behind The Scenes section contains a series of black and white photographs from the films production with accompanying captions that are a little too aimed towards marketing a film you've already bought for my liking, but at least the effort is there. Further static extras can be found in the Movie Information section that includes a series of Colour Stills, the Original Poster Art, Production Notes (actually just the text found on the rear cover) and a Biography & Selected Filmography section that includes detailed information on David Chiang, Ti Lung and director Chang Cheh.
Rounding off the disc is a set of new Trailers created for these DVD releases. Presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen with a choice of Cantonese and Mandarin voiceovers are trailers for: The Heroic Ones, Come Drink With Me, Killer Clans, The Tea House and The Price of Love.
The 'Iron Triangle' live up to their reputation with this often stunning martial arts epic that is only let down by some staggered plot development and a weak ending. Fortunately a fine audio commentary and a welcome set of interviews help to gloss over these minor letdowns making this a DVD that comes recommended to anyone interested in the genre.