Jet Li’s Fearless
Stars: Jet Li
Director: Ronny Hu
**** (out of five)
Jet Li’s Fearless is being billed as the actor’s last martial-arts film. If that’s true, he’s going out on top. Fearless may not be the martial-arts film to end all martial-arts films, but it’s the kind of action picture that raises the bar a little higher.
The fight sequences will leave your jaw on the floor, the characters are a little more interesting than your basic genre types, and there’s even a coherent moral message about when to stop fighting, and when to fight on.
And, let’s face it, director Ronny Yu knows how to shoot a chest kick.
Fearless casts Li as Huo Yuanjia, the Chinese wushu master famous for having founded the Jinwu Sports Federation in 1909, using martial arts as a building block for a nationalist movement that helped the Chinese people restore their sense of identity and pride after the devastation of the Sino-Japanese War.
Starting in 1910, when Huo fought four champions from England, Spain, Belgium and Japan at a Shanghai tournament, the film tracks back over the decades to tell the story of his life as a conventional riches-to-rags redemption melodrama.
Of course, this particular redemption melodrama has room for several elaborate fights, as Huo’s self-destructive streak expresses itself through particularly literal means: in one stunning battle, Li and Chen Zhihui lay waste to an elaborate, multi-story tavern in a moonlit challenge.
As choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping and shot by Poon Hang Sang, the set piece has an eerie beauty that in no way mutes the brutality of its violence.
That contrast is essential to the film, as Li’s humbled Huo winds up redeeming his wayward life by learning to tend fields and fight for his nation, rather than himself.
Yu and his screenwriters, Chris Chow and Christine To, have crafted a sombre elegy for Huo as well as a valedictory vehicle for Li, who obviously aspires to more than just punching and kicking.
Here’s to whatever comes next.