How fearless is Jet Li? He’s intrepid enough to say that “Jet Li’s Fearless” will be the last of his martial-arts films, a farewell to the genre that made him an international star.
Though “Fearless” was a passion project for Li that’s filled with dazzling fight sequences, his career might have been better served with the glorious “Hero” as his martial-arts swan song.
“Hero” had it all: masterful action, rich characters, a riveting story structure and the grandest of drama. “Fearless” is merely adequate by comparison, a tale propelled almost entirely by its action, with a passable but predictable story of disgrace and redemption stuffed between its combat scenes.
A Chinese martial-arts champion in his teens, Li had been itching to tell the story of Huo Yuanjia, an idol and inspiration who laid the groundwork for the modern incarnation of the sport in the early 1900s.
Directed by Ronny Yu, a Hong Kong filmmaker whose English-language flicks include “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason,” “Fearless” casts Li as the brash Huo, whose father is a martial-arts master.
Initially a sickly, asthmatic child, Huo studies his father’s moves in secret, gradually improving his health and stamina and becoming a ferocious competitive fighter.
The young Huo has the skills but not the philosophy of restraint, discipline and inner peace that guide the best martial-arts practitioners. Huo’s a boozy partier who revels in the adoration of his followers and desperately needs to show the world he’s the best.
The thin story of “Fearless” unfolds as a standard hero-rising-from-his-own-ashes tale. Huo’s brazenness and brutality lead him to tragedy, followed by a period of exile in the wilderness where he conveniently falls in with sturdy rural folks who teach him the value of selflessness, mercy and gratitude for the simple things.
Huo returns stronger than ever, establishing the Jingwu Sports Federation whose martial-arts practices remain a huge influence on the sport today. He also competes in a showdown against four international opponents to lift the spirits of the Chinese, who have become second-class citizens in their own country amid Western and Japanese influences.
When Li is not fighting, “Fearless” lumbers through its dramatic scenes, sequences focused on the sports federation’s formation coming off as especially dry and dull. Yu and screenwriters Chris Chow and Christine To treat the presence of outsiders superficially, the foreigners presented as caricatured villains whose incursions into China are abrupt and unexplained in the film’s context.
Li continues to show increasing depth as an actor, though the role calls mainly for a few extremes of haughtiness and sorrow woven around a facade of zen equanimity.
His fight scenes are fast and furious, yet because they take place largely in competitive rings, they end up feeling constrained and far less organic than the remarkable action of “Hero.”
While he intends to keep making action movies, Li has said he wants to focus more on family-oriented and philosophical stories rather than the martial-arts epics that launched his career, such as “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Fist of Legend.”
“Fearless” is an OK way to say goodbye, but its stagy fight choreography may just leave Li’s fans wishing for something more.