Jet Li’s latest import “Hero” (Miramax) is a different sort of martial arts epic, an unexpected though certainly welcome change of pace for fans of the genre. Far from the grim spectacle of Jet Li’s earlier work or recent jaw-droppers like the “Kill Bill” films, “Hero” is a kinder, gentler kung-fu flick, concerned more with style than body count.
“Hero” tells the story of powerful warriors battling each other in a mythical version of ancient China, a fairy tale world that commands the wonder of suspended disbelief and draws inevitable comparisons to Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” People fly, sashes of whirling cloth deflect clouds of arrows and swords move faster than the human eye, all against a range of stunning Chinese vistas.
The story revolves around the King of Qin, who hopes to unify all the kingdoms of China under his rule, but lives in fear of three assassins dedicated to ending his reign. Jet Li plays “Nameless,” an anonymous soldier of fortune who arrives at the royal palace, claiming he’s killed the assassins. The astonished king invites Nameless into the royal chambers, wanting to hear the story of how a minor government official defeated such fearsome killers. Nameless’s story is anything but simple.
While “Hero” is stylistically similar to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the movie’s plot feels cribbed from “Rashomon,” a classic Japanese murder mystery famous for never telling the viewer which of its multiple solutions was correct. Unlike “Rashomon,” however, the differing accounts in “Hero” don’t so much contradict as supercede the tale that came before, eventually giving the viewer a straight answer. The stories feel slightly repetitive, and the final version of the tale is not as satisfying as some of the earlier ones, making the end of the film feel a tad anticlimactic.
Like any marital arts film, the focus here is meant to be the richly choreographed action sequences that pepper each account of Nameless’s victory. Sadly, only about half the fights involve Li, yet all of them involve a certain grandeur – a sense that the fight matters, making every blow emotional. The fights are not so much violent as lyric, swirls of color and shape that bear as much resemblance to modern dance as kung-fu. The film is being aggressively marketed as an action flick, the trailers showing Jet Li resolutely taking on an entire army. Without giving away the story, it’s safe to say that trailers are misleading at best. “Hero” is much more a fairy tale than an action film, and it’s the camera work, not Li, that steals the show. The film’s sense of spectacle comes from its epic scope and thoughtful composition, not its violence quotient. While that might disappoint some, most viewers will leave the theater feeling caught up in the film’s sweeping beauty, mouths slightly agape at what they have just seen.