- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

”Hero” sounds generic to a fault and proves aesthetic to a fault. Reputedly a huge hit when released in China a couple of years ago, this sumptuously stylized but dramatically famished spectacle attempts to exalt a national myth and may have overmatched its director, the prestigious Zhang Yimou.

In the 1990s, the director’s series of movies with an exceptional young actress, Gong Li (“Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qiu-ju”), gave Chinese filmmaking a distinctive international impact. He also directed a lovely pastoral tear-jerker, “The Road Home,” imported in 2001 before he signed on for “Hero,” probably envisioned as a topper to Ang Lee’s magnificent “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

A lofty fiasco at best, “Hero” seems content to spin gorgeously mounted wheels while recalling an oft-told historical fable.

Chen Dao Ming, cast as an astute first emperor of the Qin dynasty, confronts a possible master assassin in the throne room of the Forbidden Palace, circa 200 B.C.

The visitor, played by martial-arts star Jet Li, prefers to be known as Nameless, anticipating Clint Eastwood’s gunslinger in the Sergio Leone Westerns. He claims to have vanquished a trio of assassins who targeted the emperor, nearing the completion of wars of conquest intended to unify feuding kingdoms.

These departed threats are called Sky, Snow and Broken Sword. They emerge from suspicious, grandiose flashbacks; the respective roles are played by Mr. Li’s principal rival, the levitation specialist Donnie Yen; and the co-stars of the lushly romanticized “In the Mood for Love,” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.

The emperor’s alleged protector is permitted to approach closer to the throne while being rewarded for successive tales of magical fighting prowess.

At the conclusion of the initial set of flashbacks, the emperor reveals his skepticism about the war stories of Nameless, deduced to be yet another assassin. It remains to be seen whether this foreknowledge will seal or deflect the ruler’s doom. While the issue is up for grabs, recurrent flashbacks multiply the duel scenes involving Nameless with Snow and Sword, who excel at lethal lovers’ quarrels.

These episodes also encourage contrasting color schemes in the billowing gowns and draperies entrusted to the Japanese costume designer Emi Wada, who won an Academy Award for Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran.”

The fact that it’s easier to salute Miss Wada — or cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the dreamy colorist of “In the Mood for Love” — betrays the dramatic shortcomings of “Hero.”

There’s not even an opening scene. The movie introduces itself with a flurry of pounding hooves, war banners and time-lapse cloud formations. “Hero” repeatedly throws a gala, especially when displaying archery and drapery. Even when impressively staged for the camera, the set pieces remain perilously overblown, lacking adequate preambles or consequences.

Miss Wada’s color coding provides more differentiation than the fragile character attributes meant to distinguish the assassins. In fact, there’s more sense of character in the hordes of faceless soldiers moving or shouting in formation. At least they’re an imposing throng.

Zhang Yimou might have gotten lost in the mob. The small-scale, intimate elements of the presentation appear the weakest. He doesn’t even find the time to protect his “Road Home” leading lady, Zhang Ziyi (also the battling ingenue of “Crouching Tiger”), from gauche takes while cast as a lovelorn disciple to Broken Sword.

Evidently, no one got a grip on characterization before passing out the dueling swords in “Hero.” Nevertheless, those blades look marvelous when slicing through pools of water or yards of fabric.

**Two stars

TITLE: “Hero”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional scenes of combat in an ancient setting)

CREDITS: Directed by Zhang Yimou. Screenplay by Li Feng, Zhang Yimou and Wang Bin. Cinematography by Christopher Doyle. Production design by Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou. Costume design by Emi Wada. Action sequences directed by Tony Ching Siu-tung. Visual effects supervisor: Ellen Poon. Music by Tan Dun, with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman. In Mandarin with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes


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