Film Movement Blu-ray Review: Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

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Imagine starring in a movie so dangerous that it sends you to the hospital twice in one day. You tell yourself you can't quit because you started acting in your thirties and it's your first crack at a decent lead part so now you're more determined than ever to make the film count. Pushing yourself to the limit, you keep running and keep fighting despite live rounds of machine gunfire going off all around you that burns so hot it scars. And that's when you learn that the studio's decided to shelve the film for two years because they just don't think you're a big enough star.

Now imagine you're a well respected, lower rung director who finally gets the chance to make something besides a farce. Although it's not the gangster picture you've been dreaming of crafting for years, you persuade yourself that a war movie is the next best thing. Diving in to make what you consider your "first real film," you rewrite the script and inject it with a surge of emotion. The studio decides however to lead it astray. Seasoning the film with gratuitous nudity and sex, the new material is so against your principles that you refuse to to be involved and eventually, the absurd scenes are helmed by someone else. Miles away from the movie you hoped it would be, although it thankfully frees you up from your contract with the studio, the final cut is so upsetting that you refuse to ever watch the movie again, let alone discuss it.

Not just a game of What Ifs, there are names behind the respective hypotheticals; it's the story of Heroes Shed No Tears, or more specifically, the two men who worked on the picture and took its new title to heart in the form of leading man Eddy Ko and director John Woo.

Pulled off the dusty shelf at Golden Harvest studio in a rush after the smash success of Woo's subsequent effort A Better Tomorrow (which helped put Hong Kong filmmaking on the international map), Heroes Shed No Tears debuted in theaters four weeks after Tomorrow. Riding the cresting wave of Woo mania, although Tears had been shot under the name of Sunset Warrior, it was quickly given a more action oriented title, most likely with Heroes the victor because, as Asian film authority Grady Hendrix has pointed out, it started with the same Chinese character that A Better Tomorrow did when displayed on a marquee.

Working with a cast and crew that included members who spoke at least three languages that Woo did not — necessitating him to use gestures to convey to his Japanese cameraman the type of shots that he wanted — Heroes is an exploitative trashapalooza of over-the-top violence and laughably ridiculous sex awkwardly thrown into the mix.

It's also a major step down in quality for fans of the director's best work from the era as evidenced in A Better Tomorrow or the cult favorite The Killer. However, for patient viewers, there's enough here that you can still see flickers of the type of poetic filmmaking and cinematic storytelling that would soon become synonymous with his name as Heroes foreshadows the masterpieces he would make in the future.

A men on a mission movie, the film follows a group of specially recruited commandos — led by a crackerjack Eddy Ko — who've been hired by the Thai government. Sent to go after a drug lord (Lam Ching Ying) operating out of the Golden Triangle of Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand, which is responsible for 75% of the illicit drug trade around the globe, the operation goes sideways and Ko's Chan Chung ends up taking the kingpin hostage as they travel through the countryside and try to outrun another horrific group. After an attack at his home nearly took the life of his sister-in-law and young son, Chan Chung brings them along for their own protection, making the war on drugs all the more personal.

By adding in these emotional elements and especially in building up the relationship between Ko and his son — who communicate with one another during times of crisis with only their eyes like a visual Morse Code — Woo ensures that we keep watching long after we've been exposed to multiple scenes sure to make our eyes roll. In fact, the father-son relationship is a strong one, not only because it sets up the film's strongest character arc but it's also a precursor to countless movies he would make that center on a bond or "love story" between two men.

Heavily reliant however on ultraviolence and gore, Heroes feels more like the product of '60s Hammer horror and Spaghetti Westerns mixed with '70s Blaxploitation than it does a traditional war picture. Using slow motion and montage effectively to punctuate a devastating standoff or shocking death, audiences can see Woo experimenting with daring visual technique as he develops his own individual filmmaking arsenal. And to its credit, Heroes is filled with flourishes and effects that Woo would fine tune as he moved into the '90s with Hard Boiled and eventually crossed the pond to make his American debut with Hard Target.

Yet as intriguing as Heroes is for longtime fans of the director (like yours truly), there's a reason why Woo hasn't seen the film in over thirty years that goes well beyond his reputation as a perfectionist who's never satisfied with his own work. Frankly, it's just not that good. Worth watching once, if only on a scholarly level for Woo devotees, although it's easy to get caught up in the plot involving Chung's son, when contrasted with moments of extreme carnage, the amped up emotions in the film's final act give off an air of Mystery Science Theater 3000 worthy camp.

Released onto North American Blu-ray for the first time as part of Film Movement's Classics label, Heroes Shed No Tears has been given a barbed wire sharp 2K restoration that cleans up any remaining traces of live M16 gunfire left in the frame. Of particular interest to film buffs, this edition features an eye-opening interview with Eddy Ko as well as a dynamic Heroes essay by Asian film expert Grady Hendrix that is wonderfully informative.

A movie you're honestly better off renting than owning, much like the film served as a stepping stone for Woo to make stronger fare, hopefully the release of Heroes will inspire Film Movement to seek out other Hong Kong movies that fans definitely won't want to leave on the shelf. And who knows, they could always replicate Golden Harvest's favorite 1986 Woo double feature, thereby making us forget about the lackluster Heroes of today while releasing a brand new restoration of the currently out-of-print A Better Tomorrow.

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