Jet Li starred in 2002’s Hero, a high-flying martial arts movie. 2017’s The Hero, starring Sam Elliott, is a very different kind of movie. No reboot here. In this decidedly non-martial arts movie (I counted exactly zero karate chops), Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is an aging actor who earned his fame in Westerns, but whose career is on life support. Combine contentious relationships with his family and a dire cancer diagnosis, and suddenly Lee (Elliott) has a lot to deal with. Beautifully shot, featuring some outstanding acting, The Hero largely transcends its shortcomings to become a film that works despite halfheartedly embracing an innovative approach.
The Hero mixes conventional and decidedly unconventional plot development and resolution, with mixed results. Inconsistent payoffs notwithstanding, every effort at innovative storytelling deserves recognition in a market dominated by tentpole movies long on style, short on substance. Some conventional elements are problematically familiar. Although not all resolve predictably, enough do to undermine the film’s more esoteric tendencies. It’s unfortunate because the film’s more unexpected choices are wonderful. Director Brett Haley showed incredible restraint in emotionally charged scenes. Vivid dreamlike sequences offer opportunities to live inside the movie’s emotional reality, to take a moment to feel rather than think.
To the extent this movie works, it’s on the strength of impressive acting. The May-December romance between Charlotte (Laura Prepon) and Lee (Sam Elliott) works even though it shouldn’t. Earnest and likable performances from both actors are more than enough to overlook the miles-wide age difference between the two. Elliott swings between levity and gravitas to paint a thoughtful portrait of a man at pains to reconcile his legacy, his successes and failures, and perhaps most importantly, the mark he leaves on his family. Ultimately, this film is quite good, but could have been great.
Sam Elliott deserves to be recognized as the national treasure he is. His career reaches back to the ‘60s, and his quintessentially Western voice has lent depth and authenticity to dozens of film and TV projects ever since. His performance in The Hero is no exception; Elliott’s voice, simultaneously deep and disarming, partners with quiet struggle to paint an evocative portrait of a man reconciling his life in the face of death. Elliott is undoubtedly aware of the outsized asset his voice is to him as an actor. To his great credit, he applies that asset judiciously, a beautiful less-is-more approach. Just because singers can riff on every note doesn’t mean they should.
Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood, then heaping praise on them. Birdman and La La Land are just two recent examples. This self-fascination is peculiar, though not necessarily unexpected or out of character. There’s an odd implication that the difficulties of normal life are reserved for people who see red carpets only in People magazine. Though not explicitly stated, there’s an expectation that showbiz success is a one-way ticket away from all life’s problems. Fetishizing the mundane, denigrating it while simultaneously exalting it onscreen, has the confusing effect of being relatable, but somehow inaccessible. Diving even deeper, The Hero also renders the exotic as mundane. Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) as the fallen star takes some of the shine off of Tinseltown. Of course, these notions are all subtext, just waiting for people like me to overthink.
|The Hero (2017)|
|Release Date:||June 9th, 2017|
|Author:||Jason M. Brown|
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