Popular nouveau-actioners from The Matrix to Charlie's Angels have appropriated the high-flying kinetics of Hong Kong wire-fu to fashion a sleek future hero unbound by the mortal limits of physics and pain. To that end, Ang Lee's wonderful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ups the ante on gravity-scoffing mayhem, treating the high kicks and spins with the fluid, effortless grace of an expertly choreographed Hollywood musical. Heavy on expository dialogue, master-student rivalries, and old scores to settle, Crouching Tiger may play best to diehard fans of the genre. But far from merely pillaging traditional Hong Kong period epics, Lee and his screenwriters embrace their conventions wholeheartedly, giving the film a sincere old-fashioned quality that's a large part of its charm. Lee invests his hoary tropes with genuine emotion and romantic sweep, making them more than just an arbitrary bridge between action sequences. Leading a stellar cast, icons Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh star as embattled martial-arts heroes who have less trouble dispatching warriors than confronting their feelings for each other. As the story opens, Chow returns to his home province with a magical 400-year-old sword called Green Destiny, intending to avenge his master's murder at the hands of shadowy exile Jade Fox. Meanwhile, Yeoh befriends spoiled princess Zhang Ziyi, who admires her independence and seeks a life of adventure, no matter the means. When Green Destiny falls into enemy hands, Chow and Yeoh join forces to get it back, setting off a flurry of spectacular fight sequences that escalate from Beijing rooftops to bamboo treetops. Aspiring to nothing short of the greatest kung-fu movie ever produced, Crouching Tiger assembles a dream team of collaborators and sets them to work on a sprawling canvas. On a technical level, the film is above reproach, with artful wirework by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix, the Drunken Master series), painterly cinematography by Peter Pau (The Bride With White Hair), and a simple, affecting cello score performed by Yo-Yo Ma. But the ever-malleable Lee, as comfortable here as he was in mid-'70s Connecticut (The Ice Storm) and Civil War-era Missouri (Ride With The Devil), excels in his attention to character and performance, often perfunctory details in the martial-arts genre. Though the breathless kung-fu action is the main attraction, the film soars as a melodrama, too, with a glorious interlude between Zhang and her outlaw lover (Chang Chen) that's as romantic as anything in film this year. Emotionally generous and vastly entertaining, Crouching Tiger is a pure, unmitigated pleasure.