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Corey Yuen Kwai, like many longtime Hong Kong directors, has had a preposterously spotty career, from the sublime Fong Sai Yuk to the execrable Mahjong Dragon. His new film, Hero, an attempted big-canvas period classic along the lines of Once Upon a Time in China, sits a little closer to the bottom of the scale. The first movie in almost 15 years to sport the old Shaw Brothers logo, it's meant as a splashy comeback for the studio, with lavish sets, hundreds of extras, and an all-star cast. Indeed, the Chinese locations are great to look at and the long-coat-and-fedora costume design is handsome, but Hero is nothing more than a compendium of gangster-movie cliches. Our bumpkin hero Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) arrives in Shanghai with his comic-relief brother (Yuen Wah) determined to carve out a piece of the big city for himself. He instantly befriends one gang boss, Tam See (Yuen Biao), and pisses off another, Yuan Shuan (Yuen Tak). From here, the banalities quickly line up, as the naive Ma is corrupted by a bad woman and then saved by a good one; forms his own gang and becomes too ambitious, rich, and snooty, turning his back on his mentor; returns after his near-tragic downfall to triumph over his evil enemies in a kung fu battle to the death. There's plenty of fierce martial-arts action, and in these scenes the film occasionally shows some real spunk. I especially like the one in which Ma, after telling an attacking gang of bad guys to "give me a hand," whacks off all their arms with a sword. Most of the fighting, though, is so absurdly frantic that it's impossible to follow. The Shaw Brothers studio is going to have to do a lot better than this if it wants to rejoin the international cinema fray.

-- Tod Booth

Hero opens Wednesday at the Four Star.

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