The Heroic Ones Review
Cheng Cheh's The Heroic Ones takes place during the final years of the Tang Dynasty's rule, during which the capital of Chang An was conquered by Wang Cha and his marauders. Li Ke Young who led Shatuo had been given Lordship duties by Tang and remained loyal as he sent his men eastward into battle against Wang Cha.
The King of the Mongol army (Ku Feng) and his thirteen sons known as "The Thirteen Generals" have so far reigned supreme in their efforts to take over land but with the constant threat of bandits and high military factions they must rely on their cunning and stealth. The king sends out his loyal warriors, which would ordinarily be a good choice under the circumstances. Unfortunately the group are at odds with themselves, causing inner family turmoil that threatens to disable their close bond.
Forming his basis for another tale of heroic bloodshed amidst a historical setting, director Cheng Cheh churns out a film that is as epic for its convoluted characterisation and plot as it is for its unprecedented amounts of onscreen violence. The results are mixed because despite its healthy two hour run time it has far too many characters to deal with and does not go that extra mile in fleshing them out to provide something of a more rewarding experience. This lack of development forms the film's Achilles heal, setting up our "heroes" and yet depicting them in such a dislikeable manner that it becomes almost impossible to sympathise with any of them or care for their plight. When family ties are broken its only the film serving another, yet cumbersome twist that inevitably will end on a predictable note. Having said that the film does provide one or two surprising moments, not least of which is a shocking sequence in which a major player gets his unexpected comeuppance. But frankly speaking this isn't enough, for moments like these are far too few in-between and with only an additional scene involving Jin Su (Ti Lung) take on hordes of foes with his spear, whilst protecting his father in what finishes on an effective sad note there is very little else that stands out to relish.
The film's fight scenes are indeed brilliantly executed, hard not to imagine when Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai are involved to lend their talents, but rather than try to outdo the next sequence the film simply retreads them, often starting off with our heroes scaling a castle wall before performing legendary trampoline jumps and finishing off their enemies, which seems to happen about every 20-minutes in shot for shot recaps. These sequences drag out an otherwise anaemic plot when stripped of its barbarity and although many a fan should be more than happy with its lashing of blood and weaponry it doesn’t hide the fact that Cheng Cheh's story is thinner than a rich tea biscuit. With a pace that fluctuates between being hasty and lethargic the film’s overall enjoyment becomes dented and not even a brief, romantic encounter can raise it above standards any more.
In order to bring some emotion to the proceedings, Cheng Cheh momentarily takes us away from the action and brings us Lily Li, in a scene that highlights a potential relationship between her and David Chiang’s character, Chun Xiao. Being the King's most loved son he also seems to deserve a little love but in the end this comes down to nothing more than a fleeting glance that denies both characters a chance to become entwined. Why settle for romance when you can spend the rest of the film maiming? Cheng Cheh never preoccupies himself with the little things, even if he wants to carry over as many genre elements as is feasibly possible but his valiant attempts are easily thwarted.
Momentum Asia carries over IVL and Celestial's treatment of the film to PAL territory in the last of their February line up. Upon inserting the disc the viewer is treated to an anti-piracy advertisement which to be honest everybody fast forwards through. I know the score, I just want my film to pop up quicker.
Cheng Cheh utilises "Shaw-Scope" to great effect once more and here it is presented in all of its interlaced, non-anamorphic glory. Celestial's earlier releases in Hong Kong saw non-anamorphic treatment, which later picked up and improved. The Heroic Ones is presented in exactly the same way and while it isn’t surprising it is still disappointing.
Fear ye not, as the film has been lovingly restored to bring the best out of it. There are a few signs of wear and tear but overall the image is often striking, exhibiting some mild grain during night time scenes and slightly diffused black levels, which could have been just a little deeper but I must stress only happen on occasion, when we see black costumes during night scenes. Detail is fine though and colours are often strong and natural.
Purists rejoice at the news that The Heroic Ones has been given a deserving Mandarin 2.0 soundtrack, eradicating the need for gimmicky 5.1 tinkering. Let your ears become attuned to the sounds of clangy swords in great high end front usage, while the equally generous amounts of dialogue provides an easy listening experience to heed your every desire.
The optional English subtitles are of excellent quality and are of a good sized font, which is very easy to read but due to the placement of them it is hard to zoom in and enjoy on a Widescreen display.
If Momentum Asia are using IVL/Celestial's work then why have we yet to see some of the great features make it overseas for these releases? I don't see why they can't be licensed, especially considering the asking price. Sadly there is no commentary which graces the Chinese release or interviews which are evidently around. Instead we get newly created trailers to promote Momentum Asia releases: The Heroic Ones, Heroes Two, The Spiritual Boxer, Death Duel, Human Lanterns and The Magnificent Trio.
The Heroic Ones is a film of both high and low points. Too occupied with providing non stop thrills it suffers in terms of characterisation, showing unintentionally dislikeable heroes and awkward pacing. The film is still a curious piece and well worth checking out for aficionados of Chang Cheh and those who visually gorge upon bloodied, swordplay. Whether or not I think its worth the asking price has been covered previously so the choice is yours to make, but what with some of our affiliates stocking the title at a more acceptable price then it's not all bad.