The Great Wall
Unlike any American blockbuster you've seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile.
Zhang Yimou's "Hero" is beautiful and beguiling, a martial arts extravaganza defining the styles and lives of its fighters within Chinese tradition. It is also, like "Rashomon," a mystery told from more than one point of view; we hear several stories which all could be true, or false. The movie opens, like many folk legends, with a storyteller before the throne of an imperious ruler, counting on his wits to protect his life.
The storyteller is Nameless (Jet Li), who comes to the imperial court of the dreaded King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming). Qin dreams of uniting all of China's warring kingdoms under his rule; his plans to end war, the opening narration observes, "were soaked in the blood of his enemies." Three assassins have vowed to kill him: Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen). Now comes Nameless to claim he has killed all three of them. He wishes to become the king's valued retainer, and collect a reward.
These opening scenes are visually spectacular. Nameless approaches the royal residence past ranks of countless thousands of soldiers, passes through entrance rooms of great depth and richness, and is allowed to kneel within 100 paces of the king -- which is closer than anyone has been allowed to approach in many years. One pace closer, he is warned, and he will be killed.
The king asks to hear his stories. Nameless explains that his martial arts skill by itself was not enough to defeat such formidable enemies. Instead, he used psychological methods to discover their weak points. The style of Broken Sword's swordplay, for example, was betrayed by the style of his calligraphy. Sword and Snow were lovers, so jealousy could be used. Perhaps Snow could discover Sword making love with the beautiful Moon (Zhang Ziyi), which would sunder their alliance. As Nameless talks, there are flashbacks to the scenes he describes.