Zhang Yimou’s rise to prominence as a result of the long-delayed Hero (it’s been sitting on a Miramax shelf since 2002) is mildly depressing. It’s not that the film is disappointing – in fact, it’s a stunning, visually breathtaking martial arts extravaganza – but that Yimou, a director known for subtle human dramas such as Ju Dou (1990) and Not One Less (1999), has chosen to forsake intimate filmmaking in favor of crafting big-budget action-saturated spectacles. Hero tells the tale of a third-century B.C. Chinese assassin named Nameless (Jet Li) who meets with the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) to report that he has slain three legendary killers. As he recounts his exploits, however, his ulterior motives for meeting with the emperor are gradually revealed. Yimou’s flashback-heavy plot is indebted to Rashomon and the film’s gravity-defying combat is modeled on classic Hong Kong cinema and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, yet the director’s ultimate coup isn’t the narrative's originality (by the mid-way point, it becomes somewhat rote) but, rather, cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The director’s twirling, soaring, clashing fight scenes are, courtesy of Doyle, drenched in luxurious primary colors, and the locales in which these skirmishes occur – a gambling house beset by rain; a yellow-and-red forest overwhelmed by swirling leaves; a duel fought on a lake’s translucent surface – are nothing short of gorgeous. An illustrious cast that includes Li, Crouching Tiger’s Zhang Ziyi, and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung (reunited as lovers after In the Mood for Love) does its best to instill the film’s conflicted warriors with a larger-than-life majesty, and the story strikes a mildly resonant chord by emphasizing the unpleasant necessity of war, the strategic usefulness of nonviolence, and the nobility of sacrificing one’s self for a greater cause. Still, Yimou’s story and characters are far more thinly conceived than the adeptly choreographed superhuman swordplay. Hero is regularly awe-inspiring, but after the director’s upcoming House of Flying Daggers (a similar exercise in elaborate action), I’d be content to see Yimou ditch this martial arts mayhem and return to his humanistic cinematic origins.