Here at last: Hero channels Crouching Tiger

Zhang Yimou channels Akira Kurosawa in Hero, which is even more visually stunning than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like Kurosawa's Ran, it features huge armies with color-coded banners and plumage, and like his Rashomon it offers variations on the same story.

In addition to Crouching Tiger's wire-assisted acrobatics and aerial ballets there's a Matrix-y fight in the rain and combatants in one sequence appear to walk on water. Yes, it's a crowd pleaser.

The plot centers on an important piece of Chinese history: the rise of the first emperor, 2000 years and change before The Last Emperor.

The King of Qin (Chen Daoming) wants to unite his territory with six others that have kept the country in a constant state of war. Many enemies, especially from neighboring Zhao, would prevent this, and the King is the target of frequent assassination attempts.

On this day, the King is honoring a nameless hero (Jet Li) who has vanquished the three would-be assassins who were the greatest threat to him. While those assassins lived, the King didn't allow anyone within 100 feet of his royal person, but he lets Nameless approach within 20 feet, then 10 feet, as he is rewarded for his loyalty.

How, the King wants to know, did he do it? And thereby hangs the first of our tales.

Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), two of the assassins, are lovers; but they haven't spoken to each other in three years. Snow spent one night with the third assassin, Sky (Donnie Yen). Nameless, after killing Sky, tells Broken Sword, who retaliates by making love to his servant, Moon (Zhang Ziyi). Flying Snow catches them in the act and stabs Broken Sword. Moon attacks Snow, attempting to avenge her master.

It makes for quite a story, especially with the women soaring over a golden forest that turns red and Snow and Nameless twirling amid a hail of incoming arrows; and that's not all.

But the King doesn't believe any of it. His theory is that the other three sacrificed themselves to get Nameless, the true designated assassin, to this point, 10 feet away from his target.

There's yet another story, Broken Sword's, as related by Nameless, before history plays itself out in the conclusion to all the stories.

I could have done without considerable talk about a correlation between swordplay and calligraphy– all it meant to me is there are two ways of "drawing" a weapon– but the story is relatively easy to follow. And even if you get lost, you can just savor the visuals, as photographed by Christopher Doyle, and the countless fights, more balletic than bloody, which are likewise a joy to behold.

The score, by Tan Dun of Crouching Tiger fame, covers a broad spectrum. The music for one sequence sounds like an Asian version of Ennio Morricone. Coupled with the no-name hero, it's a spaghetti Western homage worthy of Tarantino (who took a "presenter" credit for the American release).

Li's stoic presence in the title role is less memorable than the other major characters. Leung has a bit of a Johnny Depp thing going, Cheung and Ziyi continue their impressive work from Crouching Tiger, and Yen is effective.

If you've been marking time for nearly three years until another Hidden Dragon is unleashed, Hero is the movie you've been waiting for.