JET LI'S FEARLESS directed by Ronny Yu, written by Chris Chow, with Jet Li, Shido Nakamura, Dong Yong and Betty Sun. 105 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (September 22). Subtitled. For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Jet Li has called fearless his final martial arts epic, one last windmill kick at the very tired can he helped define with the Once Upon A Time In China series, Fist Of Legend and Hero.
Li is 43, and his particular brand of wushu whoop-ass would seem to have reached its best-before date, especially compared to the wireless thumpings dished out by Thai fighter Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak and The Protector.
Fortunately, Li still commands some mighty powerful kung fu, and his acrobatic performance as real-life master Huo Yuanjia is as fresh as ever.
Huo's expertise at pounding people to a pulp made him famous at the turn of the 19th century, when China, forced to open its doors to European traders, was known as "the weak man of the Cast" and had few home-grown heroes to look up to.
The story opens with Huo squaring off against four fighters, each representing a foreign power with its claws sunk deep into the Great Wall: a British boxer, a Spanish swordsman, a Belgian soldier and a Japanese martial artist (lest the especially bitter history between China and Japan be overlooked).
While spectacularly staged by action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Matrix), this showdown merely bookends Huo's rise from asthmatic weakling to arrogant wushu champion to humble national hero whose fists and feet defended the self-respect of an entire country.
For all its phenomenal battles - Huo versus the tiger claw master, versus the broadsword master, versus an entire town of street toughs - Fearless still manages to hold still long enough to tell a compelling human story, one that could have done with a few less fistfights and a few more quiet moments of character interaction and introspection. But if the storytelling is often as heavy-handed as Li's fist driving through balsa wood, all is forgiven once the feet start flying.
If Fearless does turn out to be Li's final martial arts epic, at least he goes out on a high note.