Sumptuous and breath-catching, Hero blends the elegance of fine visual art with the more familiar cinematic jollies of attractive people engaged in crunching punch-ups. But the lavish look isn't there to disguise a fluffy centre. There's a solid, universal story here: a tale of loyalty, love and sacrifice. What's more, the glossy surface is there to service the plot, not detract from it. The Rashomon-style, multi-perspective storytelling is ingeniously, intimately colour-coded, performances (particularly Maggie Cheung's) are rich and complex, and at its centre is Jet Li, immense as the inscrutable killer of killers. Granted an unusually intimate audience with the paranoid king, he communicates his character's buried motivations with subtle tics and glances. Naturally, he also lays righteous waste to all comers...
Here is a film where every frame feels individually designed, with saturated colour and symmetry reflecting the texture and natural wonder of the environment. It also hits the mark in terms of grand scale, contrasting between dizzying swarms of extras and tiny figures picked out amid vast, expansive landscapes.
The ravishing action set-pieces are both thrilling and poetic: a fight in an autumnal forest clearing, with pirouetting bodies whipping up a cyclone of golden leaves; a battle over a still lake, with the characters skipping across the glassy surface, swords grazing the water like brush strokes; a brutal, sensual sequence where slow-motion raindrops pop and melt off the figures; and an incredible, iconic scene where thousands of soldiers fire volleys of arrows at a character who deflects them with a flailing, dervish dance.
Most of the fights scenes are balletic and enchanting to behold, as the twirling combatants trace graceful, gravity-defying patterns through the air. For all that, there are times when the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon parallels start to grate, prompting the mind to shrug and start visualising the wires.
Still, at 99 minutes, Hero feels close to perfect. Artful without being arty, steeped in high drama without any over-egged melodrama, it's proof that `epic' doesn't have to mean `ponderous' and `overlong'.