I know what I’m supposed to say about “Hero” That it’s a masterpiece. That it’s a visual feast. That I loved it ever-so-many thousand times better than “Cats.” That is, after all, what every other movie critic in the universe has been saying for a week.
The problem is, I can’t say that — with the fervor that it has been said elsewhere, at least. Though I found much to like about the story and look of “Hero,” especially the dazzling camera work and use of color, not to mention its unorthodox use of the unreliable narrator (something we see much more in novels than in cinema), I found myself sitting there thinking that director Yimou Zhang was having more fun than I was. I found myself thinking (Lord, help me) that it’s getting to the point that when you’ve seen one flyin’-kung fu-swordfightin’ movie, you’ve kind of seen them all. Though there were a great many scenes in “Hero” that I thought were brilliantly executed — full of power and passion and visual daring — there were at least half that many that I couldn’t help but see as pompous and overblown, too smitten by slo-mo, and especially too dependent on Peter Pan wirework than the incredible physical skill of an actor like Jet Li. Call me crazy, uncouth, unschooled in the palette of cinema, but by the end of “Hero,” if I had to see one more silk-clad body defy the law of gravity by flying 30 feet in a perfectly straight line, I was going to smother myself in my popcorn bucket.
The story begins in the 3rd century B.C., in the palace of the King of Qin. The King (Chen Daoming), we soon find, has mounted a campaign of conquest in recent years, using his army of deadly archers to try and take over the provinces that now make up modern China. He hasn’t won many friends, however. For years, and despite the best efforts of the king’s army, three dastardly assassins — Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen) — have been out to get him.
Then, one day, a lowly and nameless bureaucrat (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s palace, bearing the weapons of all three killers, and a tale of how he defeated the seemingly unbeatable foes. What follows is a kind of beautiful chess game between the king and the hero, with Li telling the king a version of his tale, the king finding flaw in it, then Li telling another, more truthful version, all set against some of the most beautiful and remote settings imaginable.
The problem for me, however, is that — with Hollywood now recycling it full-steam, as seen in the “Matrix” and “Kill Bill” movies — the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” look and style of “Hero” is no longer the revelation it once was. Wirework and slow-motion, it seems, has become for kung-fu movies what CGI is to the summer blockbuster — a tired crutch to divert our attention. First of all, this is a movie that doesn’t need diversions. It has plenty going on — plenty to move us and make us think, plenty of eye cuisine and more than enough action. Second, when you’ve got a cast with martial artists as talented as Jet Li and Donnie Yen, why not let their physical skill do the dazzling?
Still, by all means, go see it. “Hero” is well worth the price of a ticket. Just know that if you give a little smile around the 15th time some heroine whips her head around in slow-mo so her hair fans out beautifully in the light, you aren’t alone. We can just be low-brow together.