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HERO A 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this Chinese epic, finally earning a stateside release, should satisfy anyone who couldn't get enough of the visual splendors exhibited in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Zhang Yimou, the world-renowned director of Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, has assembled an all-star cast for this opulent tale centering on a warrior known as Nameless (Jet Li), who explains to a power-hungry king (Daoming Chen) how he single-handedly vanquished the legendary assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). But is the hero telling the truth, or are there some Rashomon dynamics at play here? With Crouching Tiger neophyte Zhang Ziyi rounding out the principal cast as Flying Snow's aide, Hero largely succeeds because its performers are able to punch across the importance of the story's themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice. The different color schemes employed throughout the picture are breathtaking -- it's unlikely that few other movies this year will match this one's ravishing visuals.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE A different kind of drug movie -- one that dives straight into the trenches -- Maria Full of Grace isn't about the cops, the kingpins or the clients; instead, it focuses on the mules, the (usually) impoverished folks who agree to smuggle the contraband material across borders, risking arrest or even death at any given moment. In this assured first feature from writer-director Joshua Marston, newcomer Catalina Sandeno Moreno delivers a memorable performance as Maria, a 17-year-old Columbian girl contending with a nagging family, a deadbeat boyfriend, and an unenviable job in a flower factory (her main duty is to pick the thorns off the roses). Fed up with the way her life is going -- and discovering that she's pregnant, to boot -- Maria eventually agrees to work as a mule for a local crime boss. Her assignment is to swallow dozens of heroin pellets and deliver them to a pair of dealers in New York City; to do this, she has to clear US customs (no x-rays, or she's nailed) and pray that none of the capsules open up while in her stomach, since that would lead to a painful death. Produced by HBO (which should be commended for taking a chance on a Spanish-language film) and headed for cable until the network decided to test its theatrical prospects, Maria Full of Grace is an eye-opening experience that sidesteps any political or moral rhetoric in an effort to paint a grim portrait of an independent woman who's neither saint nor sinner, but merely a working stiff whose ill-advised decisions never subjugate her humanity. 1/2

ZATOICHI Debuting theatrically the same year as James Bond (1962), Japan's Zatoichi has enjoyed a healthy shelf life comparable to that of Agent 007: Played by Shintaru Katsu, the blind masseur-cum-master-swordsman has been the star of two dozen feature films and over 100 TV episodes. Writer-director-actor Takeshi Kitano elected to bring the iconic character back to the big screen, and the result is a marvelous showstopper of a samurai flick, a genuine crowd-pleaser that earned audience awards at the Toronto and Venice film festivals. Plot-heavy and bursting at the seams with what can only be described as visual non sequiturs, Zatoichi (or The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, as it's billed everywhere except on the screen) is at heart a musical disguised as an action film, with meticulous attention to choreography (in both the fight scenes and dance routines) and sound synchronization (love those field workers!). Yet Kitano's canvas is expansive enough to also incorporate slapstick sequences straight out of vintage Looney Tunes, sword skirmishes that zoom by like NASCAR drivers gunning for the finish line, and a final celebration that would make Busby Berkeley proud. The convoluted story concerns itself with a town dominated by feuding gangs (a nod to Kurosawa's Yojimbo), a pair of siblings out to avenge their parents' murders, and a proud samurai (Tadanobu Asano, often described as Japan's Johnny Depp) reduced to the role of hired killer in order to provide for his ailing wife. Naturally, Zatoichi shuffles into town just in time to set everything right. More than just a treat for the martial arts crowd, this is a boon for movie lovers of all stripes. 1/2


THE BOURNE SUPREMACY Taken together, both Bourne films feel like consecutive episodes of a mildly entertaining television drama that can't touch Alias in its attempts at trickery and, more importantly, character development. Here, Matt Damon's ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne is even more tight-lipped than before; without girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente, former co-star reduced to cameo player) to bounce off, he's a rather one-dimensional figure, going through the motions as he tries to find out who's framing him for murder. The good stuff mostly comes during the first half; as the film progresses, the mystery slackens rather than deepens, and the movie culminates with a sloppily edited car chase that goes on for so long that I had to be reminded: Was Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne or Sheriff Buford T. Justice? 1/2

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