Zhang Yimou’s Hero is a true martial arts epic — a spectacle of movement, color and sound that will leave you awe-struck.

Zhang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle offer visuals so stunning they nearly outshine the incredible combat skills displayed in expertly choreographed fight scenes.

The story, told in flashback sequences in ancient China, begins when a nameless warrior (Jet Li) comes to the king of Qin with news that he has defeated three of the king’s most feared assassins: Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen).

The kingdom has been divided into rival factions, and the king is trying to conquer his rivals to unify the people. His political aspirations mean he lives under the threat of assassination, so he does not allow his subjects to be within 100 yards of him. However, the reward for killing the assassins offers the nameless man the opportunity to approach the king. As he recounts each victory to the king, the nameless man moves closer. But, at the same time, the king’s distrust of this unknown warrior grows.

As the king questions the warrior’s tale, he tries to discern if this nameless man is a hero, or an assassin himself.

As the king and the warrior retell the story of the warrior’s quest, there are battles and more battles. And each fight is more brilliant than the last.

Forget gravity-defying — the fights in Hero defy the imagination with unthinkable camera angles and shots that will take your breath away. In one fight, the actors not only walk on water, but we watch their clash from an underwater view, with feet splashing above the surface.

In another spectacular scene, Flying Snow and her enemy — both dressed in fiery red — spin through the air in a bright swirl of bright yellow leaves.

For all the fighting, the movie is thankfully not a gruesome bloodbath; this is even more surprising, given that the opening credits boast the film was “presented by” the king of gratuitous violence himself, Quentin Tarantino.

The incredible visuals are accented by equally impressive sound design, ranging from the quiet plop-plop of dripping water during heated fights to booming chants from the king’s men so thunderous they’ll shake your seat.

Add to it all the beautiful, moving performances by Cheung and Yen, whose chemistry lends romance and warmth to the film.

But Hero is not Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon warm. (C’mon, you know the comparison is inevitable.) While Hero has its share of tender moments, overall the story lacks the romantic energy that endeared Crouching Tiger — the chick-flick of martial arts movies — to the masses.

On the other hand, the film garners energy from other sources, including jaw-dropping scenery, costumes and a bold palate of colors. The assassins’ scenes are drenched in red, gold, blue, green and white, contrasting the stark blackness of the king’s palace.

In the end, Hero is a thing to behold, a martial arts masterpiece for the ages.

E-mail Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey at letters@metrotimes.com.

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