Movies — Hero (PG-13)

Fighting, color, ballet-like sword-play and sweeping landscapes dazzle, amaze and otherwise distract you from a wildly propagandist central message in the thoroughly enjoyable Hero.

Yeah, so, what are you gonna do? A little communist shine-on isn’t going to kill you. It’s not like it’s so subtle it sneaks up on you unannounced. Certain thematic elements involving the sacrifice of the few for the many and the greatness of one united China (hint, hint Taiwan) don’t weave their way into the fabric of the plot so much as they slash big holes into that fabric and come dancing through with big cymbals and streamers and fireworks. The central message is literally written out in giant Chinese characters at one point in the film, so it’s all about as subliminal as a person screaming directly into your ear.

And again, so what? The sword fighting was really really cool.

Nameless (Jet Li), a brave but, as his name suggests, identity-less minor official, takes it upon himself to track down and kill three of the king’s most dangerous and deadly enemies—Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Nameless approaches each with respect and, one by one, they all fall as he planned. He arrives at the place of the king of Qin to tell of his adventures and collect a reward—a reward which includes sitting closer and closer to the king as Nameless tells his story.

But the king, a brave warrior who has fought all of these assassins before, isn’t so sure of Nameless’ claims. Would all of these brilliant sword fighters really fall so easily?

The remainder of the story plays with Nameless’ initial narration—what’s true, what’s different than he described. Each time we travel back into Nameless’ exploits, the characters wear different colors—shades of blue, red, white or green. The result are stunning visuals that mix the almost mesmerizing beauty of a vibrant landscape with the fluid movements of the most exquisite ballet.

Flying Snow, the female warrior whose relationship with Broken Sword provides some of the plot’s tension, is actually fairly complex-strong and smart but also conflicted. And, more than any of the men, her fight scenes are by far the most intricately and elegantly staged. As with many a martial arts movie, the actors fight with the use of strings, allowing them to balance on something as light as water, as unsteady as a shaky beam, as improbable as a vertical wall or on nothing at all. Not only these fight scenes but the whole movie seems to float—from scene to scene, from memory to present, from reality to legend.

Jet Li as the driven, single-minded uber-swordslinger is a masterpiece of inscrutability. And, yeah, sure, he takes that stone face right up to the edge of absurdity sometimes. But gritty reality doesn’t have much of a place in the sort of movie where two opponents face off only after first taking a minute to imagine the fight in their mind and pay the blind musician a few coins to keep turning out the string-instrument jams.

But the occasional fast-and-loose with the possible and the feather light plot, despite whatever deeper messages it might hide, seems like merely a path to the movie’s true purpose. Hero was made to stun from its scenes of one man in a vast desert to shots of a vast army in a palace courtyard. And its awe-inspiring cinematography does just that.

- Amy Diaz

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