"Jet Li's Fearless" is one of those corny, lusciously mounted, almost predictably thrill-packed action movies you can't help but enjoy, if you have any susceptibility to the rock-'em-kick-'em genre that produced Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
"Fearless" allegedly marks Li's last turn as a martial arts movie star — at 43, the ex-wushu champion turned actor is seeking a less strenuous on-camera life — and it's based on the life story of one of China's historical sports heroes, wushu legend Huo Yuanjia, who lived from 1868 to 1910. "Fearless" shows Huo's life story in highly fictionalized terms, though the movie's most dramatic sequence — at the final Shanghai tournament, where Huo takes on four international champs, one by one — is based on fact. It's a real old-fashioned movie epic, done in director Ronny Yu's ("The Bride With White Hair") flashy, Hong Kong-and-Hollywood style, laced with spectacular no-wires fights choreographed by that Bob Fosse of kung fu moves, Yuen Wo Ping ("Crouching Tiger" and "The Matrix"). Dramatically, it's simplistic. But you can forgive any historical transgressions as long as the movie keeps roaring along.
That it does. Framed by the Shanghai tourney, Yu races through Huo's life, from childhood — when his obsession with wushu, his dad's avocation, begins — to his manhood as a swaggering champ and founder of a prominent Tianjin martial arts school. By now Huo's a cocky success with a tendency to kick first and ask questions later, and his own arrogance, and his irresponsible retinue, precipitate a tragedy, estranging him from his lifelong best friend, financial whiz Nong Jinsun (Dong Yong, in the film's best acting performance) and sending him in self-exile to the countryside.
In one of those learn-by-suffering interludes, Huo recovers in the rice fields, toiling humbly among simple farmers and winning the love of a mind-bogglingly beautiful blind peasant girl, Moon (Sun Li). Moon's inspiration reminds Huo that martial arts have their Zen side, that the word "wushu" combines two words that mean "stop fighting"— and that reinforces the film's sometimes incongruous pacifist themes. Huo returns to Tianjin a nicer man and better fighter, ready, finally, to stun the world at Shanghai.
In that last battle, Jet Li, Yu and Yuen lavish all their fighting, camera and choreographic skill on Huo's ultimate duel with the honorable but deadly Japanese champ Anno Tanaka (Nakamura Shidou) — a true samurai-in-spirit who won't go along with his cohorts' evil schemes to make sure Huo won't win. That scene is a rouser. So, much of the time, is the movie.
Yu is something of a cult director, and he's rarely less than entertaining. His credits include the weirdo American horror movie hits "Bride of Chucky" and "Freddy vs. Jason" as well as his Hong Kong genre stuff. You might call Li a cult actor as well, if "Lethal Weapon 4" and Zhang Yimou's "Hero" hadn't so decisively raised his American and international profile.
The fights, including one on a high, dizzying platform, and the multiple-weapon combats at Shanghai are done simply and clearly, without too much editing pizazz — somewhat in the classical, lean style of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.
In a way, martial arts movies are like musicals. Their soul lies in their action routines, but the best of them need a strong, congenial story. "Fearless" isn't in the class of "Hero," where the drama and the action fuse sublimely. But you can tell that it's a more personal project for Li, that he wants to use this special hero's story, however exaggerated, to raise his countrymen's spirits. He does — and ours too.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout. A Rogue Pictures release. Director Ronny Yu. Writers Chris Chow, Christine To. Producers William Kong, Jet Li, Yang Buting, Yu. Director of photography Poon Hang Sang. Editors Virginia Katz, Richard Learoyd.
In Mandarin Chinese and English, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times