Fans of Hong Kong cinema have been anticipating Jet Li's Fearless all year, if not longer. The star is arguably the best in the business at combining major ass-kicking with actual acting; the director is Ronny Yu, known here for over-the-top horror sequels but more familiar to genre fans as the director of The Bride With White Hair; and the fight choreographer is the great Yuen Wo Ping, responsible for the most memorable battles in a few small films you might have heard of: The Matrix, Kung-Fu Hustle, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jet Li not only calls this his "most personal and most important martial-arts movie," but it's also billed as his final martial-arts epic, though he's being extremely precise with that term he says he will continue to make action films, just not spiritually minded period features that involve kung fu.
Sounds good, but don't forget that this is the same Jet Li who said that last year's idiotic Unleashed, in which he played a man raised to think that he's a kung fu fighting dog, was "my best work yet" (according to that movie's official Web site, anyway). Disillusioned by fans who have praised his combat ability over the years, Li has come to worry that viewers weren't getting the right message about martial arts, and now seems determined to make the audience pay a hefty penalty in sappy drama just to enjoy a few cool fight scenes.
In other words, maybe you should be glad this is his last. The first half hour or so is indisputably awesome, beginning in 1910 Shanghai as Li's Huo Yuanjia takes on three international challengers in a tournament and dispatches them with ease. Just as he's about to meet the final contender, the film flashes back thirty years to his childhood as the son of a great martial artist (Collin Chou). Traumatized when he sees his father lose a fight and not realizing that his father held back for fear of killing his weak-hearted opponent young Huo (Lu Yuhao) vows that the family will never lose again. Before long he has grown into Jet Li, a loving but absent father.
At this stage, plot is but the merest of frameworks to get us to the fights: Huo on an elevated platform against a childhood foe, Huo fighting one-handed in the rain while holding an umbrella in the other, Huo using an opponent's swords plus a pole to tie the rival in knots, Huo facing all remaining challengers at once. But Huo is not the disciplined, Mr. Miyagi type, and enjoys his wine and ego a little too much. When a nonsanctioned fight goes too far and brings terrible retribution down upon him, he flees the city and goes into voluntary exile. So does the movie.
Rescued at sea and brought to a farm, Huo learns how to be calm, and engages in some tedious crops-as-metaphor-for-life nonsense. The whole thing brings to mind Beavis and Butt-head's critique of Danzig's "How the Gods Kill" video: "This was pretty cool until he started getting all wimpy." Fight fans, take note once this happens, there are only two more battles remaining, and neither is the equal of what has been shown thus far.
After what we're told is "many years," though it doesn't play that way at all, Huo grows back his long knotted ponytail the same look he sported in the vastly superior Once Upon a Time in China and returns to the city to visit the graves of his loved ones. He finds that times have changed, as white men preach the Bible in the streets, and seven-foot American giant Hercules O'Brien (Australian wrestler Nathan Jones, better at fake-fighting here than he was in WWE) has belittled all Chinese men as weak, challenging all comers. Huo gets back in the game, but will no longer sign death waivers, and establishes a school called the Jingwu Sports Federation. This part of the tale is true, and the organization is still around today. But as for the rest of the story's accuracy ... did people in turn-of-the-last-century China really say "He wants to kick your butt!" and "What's your deal?"
In a troubled world, it's nice to hear a message of world peace and to see a master of hand-to-hand combat demonstrate that withholding the killing blow can be more persuasive than the alternative. But this is an action movie, and people don't come to be preached to; the Terminator flicks also favored world peace, but didn't pause the action for nearly an hour to rub it in.
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