Beginning in grand style, a nameless lone swordsman (Jet Li) strides fearlessly through thousands of armored soldiers across a vast plaza and up towering steps to the palace of the third century B.C. King of Qin (Daoming Chen), whose decades of making war on his neighbors will eventually result in establishing the first imperial dynasty of China. The king has been under attack by three deadly assassins, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), who have killed thousands of his troops and once managed to penetrate inside the throne room of the palace. Now Nameless, an obscure policeman from a small village, is said to have killed all of them and has come before the king to receive his reward.
The king is astonished that so humble a man has killed warriors of such daunting skill and asks Nameless to explain how he has done so. Thus begins a Rashomon-like telling of stories, each of which is dramatized as it is told. Nameless says that he managed to kill the assassins only after studying them closely and playing upon their personal weaknesses of jealousy and lust. We watch as Nameless first manipulates and then fights them. The king is initially entranced by Nameless' tales, but eventually he becomes skeptical and tells the stories again in a way that makes more sense to him. Confronted with the king's disbelief, Nameless revises his account and tells the stories still again.
Much of the purpose of this is to provide director Zhang with opportunities to choreograph sword fights in the tradition of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Martial arts films have always exaggerated human agility and durability. But in Crouching Tiger, the characters were freed from the laws of gravity, and here they are not bound by the rules of physics. Flying Snow can stand in a hail storm of arrows and swat away each one. All the heroic warriors can fly. Broken Sword and Nameless can move so swiftly that they run and fight on water. None of this is convincing in a literal sense, and Zhang is even less concerned to make his fights seem "real" than was Ang Lee. Part of the strategy would seem to be to lift the action of the heroes out of the realm of history to situate it in the arena of myth and allegory. Ultimately, the fights are not to be viewed as "action" at all, but rather as ballet, as suggestive rather than depictive. And in that sense they can be quite beautiful.
Among the battles in Hero, three are particularly memorable. Nameless fights Long Sky in a rainstorm, and the bouncing, shattering beads of water are as impressive as the swordplay. Nameless and Broken Sword fight on the surface of a lake, their blades and flashing feet carving graceful images into the water. And in the most beautiful of all, Flying Snow fights Broken Sword's attendant Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in an autumn arboretum where clouds of golden leaves are used for sanctuary and subterfuge and where the leaves turn blood red when the steel finally finds flesh. In sum, this film can be enjoyed as visual and kinetic art, appreciated for its bursts of color and grace of movement. But in the end, the picture takes an unsavory turn. "The ultimate goal of a warrior is to lay down his sword," Nameless tells the king, and for a moment we think the monarch might be capable of learning something. But it's the filmmaker who is positioning himself to perform an act of intellectual contortion as contrived as the superhuman leaps of his characters. This picture's final lesson is that when something as grand as the construction of a country is the goal, the cost in blood is never too high. That's a premise Slobodan Milosovic would embrace in a heartbeat.