In third century BC China, a nameless assassin - or rather, an assassin called Nameless (Li) - visits a warlord (Chen) to describe how he's killed three of the tyrant's most terrifying enemies. But the truth may not be as he says.
The comparisons are inevitable, so let's get them out of the way. Hero is a better film than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee's sword-centred melodrama was, for most, their first taste of wushu - a Chinese film and fiction genre which loosely translates as 'heroic warrior' - and it certainly delivered on the lyrical action front. But there was always, for some at least, a slight inauthenticity to it; it felt like a faithful imitation of something much greater. It was like watching a competent remake when you hadn't seen the original.
Hero, though, is the real deal. Zhang Yimou, who has emerged as one of the East's most visually adventurous directors, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle have between them raised Joel Silver's famous action bar too high for Hollywood's current reach. Indeed, it's an irony that a helmer of the Fifth Generation (a school of directors defined by their exposure both to Western movies and new filmmaking technologies) should now have pushed the craft of action way beyond anything that commercially-driven Western cinema has so far delivered.
The comparison of fighting with dance is such a hoary old reviewer's standby that it's almost embarrassing to dust it off; but it's impossible not to think of ballet as Yimou's camera tracks his characters through their airborne slaughter, with bodies hanging against the sky in graceful, perfect compositions. The fights form a consummately sustained crescendo: a contest in a rain-drenched chess arena, daringly conducted mostly in the protagonists' minds, is followed by a frantic battle in an autumnal forest in which the blood-red duellists swoop among an orange blizzard of falling leaves, before Yimou abruptly switches the colour palette to greens and blues as the pair of assassins dance a pas de deux above the glassy waters of a placid lake.
But the visual invention doesn't stop at the mano-a-mano rucking. Doyle - a cinematographic genius who gratifyingly prefers to do most of his work while, as legend has it, moderately pissed - points his camera at hissing swarms of arrows which turn the sky black; a deathly game of hide-and-seek is acted out between apparently endless sheets of billowing green silk; and a scene in a library involves- Well, no description could do it justice. You've seen a lot, but you've never seen anything like this.
After all that, though, there's a slight but persistent niggle. Namely the plot. Despite a surprising - to Western minds at least - subtext in which the security and unifying force of totalitarianism is valued above putative democracy and individual freedom, Hero's central story is as flimsy and soggy as damp rice-paper. An attempt to bolster the simplistic machinations with a multitude of perspectives feels a little forced and even dishonest.
Nameless (an impressively impassive Jet Li) tells his story to the Quin warlord who simply rejects it and makes another one up. While this conceit provides a swift excuse for another astonishing action sequence, you have to wonder exactly what right he has to do so, not actually having been there.
But maybe stories work differently in third century BC China, and this is not a film about plot anyhow. It's about movement and colour and music. And rarely in any country's cinema will you see a film so wondrously charged with all three.
You'll be hard pressed to find anything as visually dazzling as this in cinematic history.