To put it quite simply, Hero is one of the most visually stunning movies in recent memory.  There is little that can compare to how the fantastic use of color and visual imagery combine with martial arts to form a spectacularly beautiful film.  Which makes it all the more baffling why Miramax sat on this film for two years, and is now marketing it incorrectly by slapping a "Quentin Tarantino Presents" above it and ignoring the fact that it was nominated for an Academy Award.  This implies that Hero is a big, violent, martial arts movie, when in reality it is much more philosophical.  Yes, there are a lot of fight scenes, but the fight choreography takes second chair to the sheer grace and elegance of the people fighting.  They fly through air and do impossible stunts a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonHero is the summation of a confluence of extremely talented people coming together.  Director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and actors/martial artists Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi.

The look of Hero is what will stay with people the longest, and Doyle (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence) is the primary person responsible.  Doyle does for Zhang what he did for Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, a sumptuous movie so beautifully shot that the emotions seemed to seep off the screen.  Hero takes place in the 3rd century BC, when China was still a group of warring states.  Qin (Chen Daoming, The Empress Dowager, One and Eight), the man who will eventually become Emperor of a united China, is still waging war in his attempts to conquer the other states.  A nameless assassin (Li, The One, Kiss of the Dragon), approaches the King to tell him that he has successfully defeated three great assassins that have been after Qin for years.  The bulk of Hero is told in flashback, Rashomon-style, where a different perspective dominates each flashback, casting a new light on what events actually happened.  To better differentiate these flashbacks, Doyle and Zhang used a dominate color palette for each of the flashbacks.  And the result is amazing.  Black, red, blue, white, and green each take over the screen for short amounts of time, each color representing an emotion and the tone of the flashback.  More impressive is that for the most part, Hero achieved the colors naturally, with props and clothing, and a minimum of special effects, and completely without using tinted lenses (like Traffic).

Nameless and Qin converse in black.  Nameless relates how he defeated Sky (Yen, Shanghai Knights, Blade II), almost too easily.  Then, he went on to defeat lovers Broken Sword (Leung, In the Mood for Love, Chinese Odyssey) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love, Love at First Sight) by pitting their jealousy against each other.  The color palette here is red, to represent love and rage.  Qin counters this account with one told in blue, and later, a third version emerges in white.  Green highlights the segment comes with a flashback depicting Broken Sword's attempt on Qin's life a few years ago.  The color schemes will certainly overshadow the story, written by Zhang, Li Feng, and Wang Bin, which is a little short on substance.  Yes, Nameless and Qin are recounting various exploits and battles, but much of Hero is an extended conversation.  Yes, Yen and Li are amazing martial artists, but anybody watching this expecting outstanding fight scenes will leave disappointed.  It's the smaller elements of the fight scenes that garner the most attention.  Li and Yen battle in the rain, where each raindrop seems to take on a life of its own.  Cheung and Zhang Ziyi (Rush Hour 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) have a gorgeous fight dressed in red, while yellow leaves fall around them.  Zhang also uses lots of wind effects to make curtains and clothes billow magnificently in the wind. 

This is another big step forward for Zhang, who is turning out to be one of China's most capable directors.  He started with huge costumed epics (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, and The Story of Qui Ju), usually with Gong Li, his professional and personal partner.  After their breakup, she has floundered, but Zhang abruptly changed courses and focused on more modern times, where he made smaller, more intimate films like Happy Times, Not One Less, and The Road Home.  Now, with Hero and the upcoming House of Flying Daggers (or Lovers as it's known in Asia), he has moved onto the grand martial arts epics.  Zhang discovered Zhang Ziyi in The Road Home, and she seems to be his new muse, as they have completed three films together.  Granted, she doesn't do much here.  Another frequent pair of collaborators is Cheung and Leung, and their inclusion brings in acting credibility.  Here are two very good actors, not just good -ooking faces that can kick butt too.  And as for Jet Li - Hero is the movie to show American audiences why Asia loves this guy so much.  With the exception of Lethal Weapon 4, nearly every one of his American films has failed to demonstrate his abilities.  He's not that great of an actor, so he needs to pick the right type of role.  This is the right role, and if Li wants to succeed in America, he needs to do more stuff like this and less of what he's been doing thus far.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good
1 hour, 36 minutes, Rated PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality.

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