Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) is a pickpocket and petty criminal who anonymously rescues survivors including TV reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis) at an aircraft crash. His motives are not "pure" as he enters the burning airliner in order to steal some of the passenger's purses and wallets, losing a shoe in the process. After finding his car is towed away from the crash scene, he flags down John Bubber (Andy Garcia), a homeless Vietnam veteran, and tells him about the rescue at the Midwestern Airlines crash site, giving him his remaining shoe. When Deke (Chevy Chase), the television station news director, offers $1 million to the "Angel of Flight 104", Bernie realizes he cannot claim the reward, due to his arrest while fencing credit cards he stole from the people he rescued. John, however, contacts Gale, recounting Bernie's tale of the rescue and provides the single shoe to take credit for the selfless act.
When Bernie tries to tell people that John is a fake, the media, after sensationalizing the heroic image of John, will not believe his story. Gale, as one of the crash survivors, considers herself to be in John's debt and soon grooms his public image. She finds herself falling in love with John even though she has questions about his authenticity. Despite his reluctant acceptance of his fame, John turns out to be a decent person, using his notoriety and reward money to help sick children and the homeless.
John finds himself in an ethical dilemma since his persona is inspirational to countless people. Meanwhile, Bernie continues to aggravate ex-wife, Evelyn (Joan Cusack), and fails to bond with his son, Joey (James Madio), who is now enamored with John. Bernie begins to feel that if Joey is going to idolize anyone, perhaps John is the better choice.
A police detective tells Gale her credit cards were recovered during Bernie's arrest. She and her cameraman, Chucky (Kevin J. O'Connor), break into Bernie's apartment with the help of Winston (Maury Chaykin), the landlord. While searching for evidence to incriminate Bernie, Gale finds a stolen Silver Microphone Award that she won in New York, the night before the crash. Bernie arrives only to be confronted by Gale, who speculates that John stole her purse in a moment of weakness during the rescue, sold it to Bernie, and accuses him of attempting to now blackmail John. They are interrupted by Winston, who says John is on television, about to commit suicide by jumping from the ledge of a high-rise skyscraper.
Gale rushes to the scene and brings Bernie along, threatening to have him prosecuted if John leaps to his death. In addition, she demands Bernie apologize for the attempted blackmail. Evelyn and Joey rush there as well, with Evelyn reminiscing how Bernie is selfish and cynical, but always becomes a great person in a crisis.
When they arrive, Bernie goes out on the ledge, hatching a scheme to milk the media attention for all its worth. Ultimately, he convinces John that the world needs a hero, and that he is clearly the right one for the job, though he does negotiate a discreet share of the $1 million. When Bernie slips off the ledge, John grabs him and pulls him to safety, a (true) hero once more. When Gale sees Bernie's face covered with dirt, as on the night of the crash, she realizes it was he who saved her. She confronts him "off the record" with her supposition, but he insists that John was the hero.
As Gale leaves, however, she thanks Bernie for saving her life; and he impulsively replies, "You're welcome." She tells him to tell Joey the truth. John agrees to continue playing the part of public hero. While on an excursion to the zoo, Bernie decides to tell Joey the true story of the crash. After he does so, a lady cries out that her daughter has fallen into the lion's cage. Joey pleads with him to help, to which he sighs, slips off his shoes, and heads off to see what he can do.
Principal photography on the film began shooting October 30, 1991 in Chicago with studio work at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, California and Los Angeles, California, along with the crash scene on location at Piru, California. The film wrapped on March 20, 1992. Mariah Carey originally recorded her #1 hit single "Hero" for the film, but her Columbia Records label did not want to give the power ballad away and chose to drop out of the project. Instead, Luther Vandross sang the theme, "Heart of a Hero".
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is a film on a similar theme by Preston Sturges. Many reviewers referred to the obvious similarities between Hero and Sturges' screwball comedies. The classic Frank Capra film Meet John Doe (1941) was also cited as a model for Laura Ziskin who both produced and supplied the story for Hero.
Hero was met with generally mixed to positive critical reviews, although it was not a box office success. Columbia lost $25.6 million on it. Roger Ebert noted: "It has all the ingredients for a terrific entertainment, but it lingers over the kinds of details that belong in a different kind of movie. It comes out of the tradition of those rat-a-tat Preston Sturges comedies of the 1940s, and when Chevy Chase, as a wise-guy TV boss, barks orders into a phone, it finds the right note." Desson Howe, film reviewer for the Washington Post said: "At the heart of this is a thoroughly appealing, old-fashioned screwball caper – the kind they used to make." Hero currently holds a 68% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 19 reviews.
Hero is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:
Bernie LaPlante - Nominated Hero
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
Hero debuted at No. 3 in home media market. It was released on VHS on April 15, 1993. Another version presented in widescreen was also released on VHS. The DVD was also released on May 25, 1999 and was later re-released in 2004 by Sony Pictures. Special features for the 1999 DVD only included liner notes and theatrical trailers. The DVD was also a flipper disc and was presented in widescreen (side A) and full-screen (side B). The only special feature for the 2004 DVD included theatrical trailers and was only presented in full-screen. Mill Creek Entertainment had recently picked up the DVD distribution rights for the film. The DVD was re-released in 2012 (20 years after the film was released). Unlike the first two DVD releases by Sony, this one includes no special features and is presented in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.