House of Flying Daggers (15)<br></br>National Treasure (PG)

We all need another 'Hero'. Sad to say, this isn't it
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The Independent Culture

Released earlier this year, Zhang Yimou's Hero was a revelation. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had already shown us Westerners how to put the art into martial arts, but Hero was even more balletic and even more opulent: you could imagine the combatants ringing each other before their swordfights to make sure their outfits co-ordinated, and to arrange to meet in the most dazzlingly photogenic location possible. It must have been a tricky assignment for the marketing department because just about every image in the film was ravishing enough to be used as the poster.

Zhang's follow-up probably couldn't be quite as jaw-dropping, and, sure enough, House of Flying Daggers (15) doesn't overwhelm the viewer with the same sense of wonder. The characters' embroidered, patterned tunics aren't as striking as Hero's deeply coloured, billowing robes, and the autumnal tones of the woodland settings seem muted next to Hero's blood-red leaves. It's still exquisite, but while Hero looked like a timeless myth brought to vivid life, House of Flying Daggers looks more like reality - or Hollywood reality, anyway.

That's true of the film as a whole. In the fight scenes the computer enhancement is more obvious than it was in Hero (especially when those comically heat-seeking daggers take flight), and while that film's battles were epic and elemental, in the new film they're a little nearer to earth: more like an elegant take on the sort of punch-ups you might see in a Steven Seagal movie. Indeed, there's a wincingly Bruce Willis moment when the hero fires four arrows at machine-gun speed to dispatch the heroine's four captors simultaneously, and then strolls up to her and smirks the line, "I'm sorry I'm late."

The story is fairly Hollywood, too. It's set in 859AD, when a corrupt, tyrannical emperor is on the throne. Waging a guerilla war against him is a host of outlaw gangs, chief of which is the House of Flying Daggers, an organisation so closely affiliated with Robin Hood and his Merry Men that they go around "stealing from the rich to give to the poor". Shortly after two policemen (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) assassinate the gang's leader, they also catch his blind daughter (Zhang Ziyi, the beautiful young co-star of both Crouching Tiger and Hero). But that very night one of the policemen breaks her out of jail and absconds with her into the countryside.

As they repulse their pursuers in a series of acrobatic, gravity-defying clashes - including a thrilling, Ang Lee-topping set piece in an emerald bamboo forest - they lead us into a Mamet-like maze of betrayal and deceit.

We're never sure if the three principals are motivated by love, revenge or duty - and they're never completely sure, either.

In the end, House of Flying Daggers is dissatisfying because it's stranded between the stylised, allegorical drama of Hero and the more literal storytelling of a conventional action-adventure movie. But, it must be said, it's only dissatisfying when it's set against Zhang Yimou's previous triumph. There aren't many other films that compare.

The first thing to note about National Treasure (PG) is that it's utter nonsense. The premise goes that America's Founding Fathers got their hands on the most gigantically valuable heap of treasure in history, but, instead of investing it in their new country, Benjamin Franklin and his pals stashed the loot away, leaving behind a trail of cryptic clues to its whereabouts - clues to be found in monuments, in the Masonic symbols on banknotes, and in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Presumably they had a lot of time on their hands.

Fast-forward 200-odd years, and Nicolas Cage is determined to find the treasure before it's plundered by a murderous pirate - even if that means pinching the Declaration. Unfortunately, the pirate (Hollywood's favourite Brit-thug, Sean Bean) is a criminal mastermind with a fortune to play with, while Cage has to make to do with the assistance of a wisecracking dork (Justin Bartha, who is lucky to be getting any employment after his turn in Gigli), and the curator of America's National Archives, who happens to be a bleached-blonde German beauty queen (Diane Kruger).

The second thing to note about National Treasure is that, as utter nonsense goes, it's well done. Charging along at such a pace that it doesn't let you pause for thought, it steers clear of the pitfalls which most recent adventure movies have tumbled into (cf The Tomb Raider franchise). For instance, instead of following the post-Bond trend of hopping from the Caribbean to Africa to wherever else the location scout wants to go on holiday, it keeps the bulk of the action in Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York. There are many more twists than explosions, there's next to no computer-generated effects, and the characters rely more on ingenuity and education than on superhuman athletics. True, Cage solves every riddle with uncanny ease, but then he may have been flicking through a copy of The Da Vinci Code, which has several similarities, so we can't hold that against him. A non-fattening holiday treat.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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