dir. Yimou Zhang
Opens Fri Aug 27.

Whether you're talking Phantom Menaces, Eyes Wide Shut, or Paris Hilton in night vision, hype and long-brewing expectation can be ruinous on a film, with initially primed audiences unable to see the actual forest for their mentally-constructed and media-fed trees.

Hero, the highest-grossing film in the history of its native China, deserves its thunderous buzz status more than most. Despite trembling hosannas from folks such as Quentin Tarantino, and a 2003 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, the movie has inexplicably languished in a studio vault for two years (not that this has entirely stopped it from being seen, however, more on which later). Initially, Yimou Zhang, the director of such intimate character pieces as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, may seem an odd choice to successfully rekindle the flaming swords and arrows of the martial arts genre, but from the opening frames he sells you. Hero melds modern wirework effects with the director's own mastery of character to create an awesome chop-socky epic with an honestly moving emotional backbeat. This time, at least, the hype can be believed. I could watch it every night.

In feudal China, a nameless warrior (Jet Li, wooden in repose, absolutely poetic in motion) earns an audience with his assassination-obsessed emperor after disposing of the three greatest killers in the world. With every tale he tells, he's allowed further into the emperor's confidences, as multiple levels of double-crosses, secret alliances, and just unbelievable ass-kicking are slowly revealed. This high-concept melding of Rashomon and The Arabian Nights allows the director to explore the heady concepts of heroism and nationalism from multiple angles with his usual perceptive grace, while also providing a myriad of opportunities for him and ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle to kick out the visual jams. (Virtually every scene has its own distinct color-coded design, without ever seeming overly calculated or Pottery Barn precious.) Shot for shot, frame for frame, beat for beat, this could very well be one of the most gorgeous films ever made.

Comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are perhaps unavoidable (and the savvy marketing folks at Miramax certainly aren't trying to tell you different). But whereas Ang Lee seemed slightly apologetic about his subject matter, swaddling the trappings of the genre within layers of Merchant-Ivoryish melodrama, Zhang wholly embraces it, transforming his base material into the Technicolor widescreen dream of every kid who ever sprawled out in front of the tube watching Kung Fu Theater. Thirty-foot backflips into trees; long-bearded masters to be avenged; sacred spears and magic helmets--there's scarcely an old-school Wu-Tang cliché that the film doesn't review and renew. If there were even a trace of self-consciousness the whole enterprise could implode into parody, but everyone involved plays it admirably straight.

Although peerless at the physical demands (hard to think of anyone else who can high-step through volleys of arrows with such serene grace), the poker-faced Li is a bit of a liability when handling his character's heavy emotional lifting. Thankfully, the supporting cast more than carries him through the rough spots. Ziyi Zhang, reprising her hot-blooded firebrand from Crouching Tiger, gets rewarded with a slot in the centerpiece fight for her troubles, amid a yellow blizzard of lotus blossoms. Best of all, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung continue their patented style of wistful romance perfected in In the Mood for Love, with the occasional pause to righteously smite their enemies.

Miramax's peekaboo release strategy may well end up hurting Hero's box office take; with import DVDs and downloadable bootlegs running rampant, there's a good chance that everyone who has even a passing interest in these kinds of films has already managed to score a copy. (In interviews, the director has resignedly lamented that every Chinese person in America has already seen it.) Get thee to a theater, however, for as cliché as it sounds, if you haven't seen this on as big a screen as possible, you really haven't experienced it. Zhang's masterful achievement absolutely calls down the thunder. And arrows. Zillions and zillions of arrows.