Wild, Wild East

Martial arts import `Hero' is a rare and magical battle epic that rewards the head and the heart.


August 27, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Set in a mythic time and place, filled with glory and daring and action aplenty, Hero is a grand and exhilarating epic, a moviegoing experience of the first order. That its central figures are Chinese and that they speak Mandarin may keep some people away, but that's their loss.

Set in pre-China China, when the seven warring states had yet to unite under a common leader, Hero glorifies a warrior who thinks equally with his head and his heart, and asks us to consider the benefits of such a balance, how rare and wonderful it is.

It's also a rousing battle flick, filled with flaming arrows and martial arts mastery and swordsmen who can cut with the best of them. Many of the action scenes are breathtaking, including an army's assault on a fortress where the defender is a lone woman and one-on-ones that are the Chinese equivalent of a Wild West shootout.

Told in a series of Rashomon-like flashbacks, the movie centers on the exploits of a nameless warrior played by the great Jet Li, who has come before the king of Qin (Daoming Chen) to claim his reward for killing a trio of assassins who had long bedeviled the throne.

The king, though grateful, is suspicious of this unknown warrior who has been able to do what entire royal armies had not. How, he wonders, could one man kill such fabled and skilled warriors as Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Certainly, he wonders with irrefutable logic, any man capable of such feats would be known far and wide.

The nameless one, however, is not big on talking about himself. What he will do, gladly, is share his exploits with the king, providing intricate details of how he did what he did. He's also not that big on sharing the whys, but should a king so fortunate as to have all his enemies dispatched at once look askew at such a gift?

With the telling of each great exploit, Hero plays like a succession of High Noons, as Nameless wanders into one enemy camp after another. Like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, he simply shows up and gets his business done, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Director Yimou Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad) has studied his Old West iconic figures, and effortlessly transplants them to ancient China, proving once again that a good archetype works no matter the setting.

Of course, it also helps to have charismatic actors, and Hero never comes up short in that department. Li and Leung are mainstays of Chinese cinema, superstars whose prowess with a sword and a kick is matched by their smolderingly intense screen presence. Leung, perhaps not as well-known to American audiences as Li, proves particularly commanding - especially as the movie progresses and the various layers of Broken Sword's persona are slowly revealed. As with everything in Hero, there is thrillingly more to this would-be assassin than at first is suggested.

But as wondrous as the men are, they take something of a backseat to Cheung, whose stand before the army of Qu and its flaming arrows - all done as lessons continue behind the walls of the fort, with students trying to ignore the arrow that has suddenly impaled a neighbor - is one of those cinematic adrenaline rushes that revel in their implausibility, pitched battle as operatic spectacle. Director Zhang (whose use of Chinese imagery and vivid color makes Hero quite the sensual spectacle) and his army of technicians deserve all praise for putting on film such a marvel of execution and imagination, but it's Cheung's steely resolve, not to mention her expert reflexes, that sells it to the audience.

Also on hand is Zhang Ziyi as Moon, a warrior-in-training who causes Nameless problems he never expected. Her presence links Hero to another Chinese-language film, the box-office smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which she also starred. Both films serve as exemplary introductions for Western audiences new to Chinese filmmaking, although Hero comes with the added bonus of what seems certainly a political message from director Zhang, whose outspokenness has caused him to run afoul of Chinese authorities. Given the fractiousness affecting the politics of his homeland, one suspects Hero's portrayal of a strong, visionary leader behind whom the Chinese can rally is hardly a coincidence.

Quentin Tarantino, who knows a thing or two about putting martial-arts mayhem on film, has called Hero one of his favorite movies, and he was a key player in convincing Miramax chief honcho Harvey Weinstein to release it in the United States. Hero is a movie that lives up to all the nobility of its title, a gift to movie audiences who cherish the opportunity to be transported to a heretofore unimagined world and absorbed totally into what happens there.

Hero (Ying Xiong)

Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi

Directed by Yimou Zhang

Rated PG-13 (martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality)

Released by Miramax

Time 96 minutes

Sun Score ****

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