3 stars (out of four)
"Jet Li's Fearless" is one of those corny, lusciously mounted, almost predictably thrill-packed action movies you can't help but like, 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 42, 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, Huo Yuanjia. Huo, a genuine legend, lived from 1868-1910, and his exploits as a master of wushu (the general Chinese term for martial arts) raised national morale during the period when beleaguered China was derided as "The Sick Man of the East."
"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") usual 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 on a simplistic level. But you can forgive any historical transgressions as long as the movie keeps roaring right along.
That it does. Framed by the Shanghai tourney, Yu races us 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 an awful 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.
The movie then gives us 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 war"--and that reinforces this 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.
Ronny 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 his own Hollywood films ("Lethal Weapon 4") and Zhang Yimou's "Hero" hadn't so decisively raised his American and international profile. Together, they're a good combo. Li is too young for some of the early scenes, but they work anyway. And, at the end, when Li's current age matches Huo's, he's able to give the part a depth and gravity that this kind of movie, unless directed by Ang Lee or Zhang, often doesn't have.
The fights themselves, including one on a high, dizzying platform, and the multiple-weapon combats at Shanghai are done simply and clearly, without too much editing pizzazz--somewhat in the classical, lean way Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly used to film their dances.
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 to set off those scenes. "Fearless" isn't in the class of "Hero," where the drama and the action fuse on a sublime level. But you can tell that it's a more personal project for Li himself, that he loves this special hero and wants to use his story, however exaggerated, to raise his countrymen's spirits. He does--and ours too.
Directed by Ronny Yu; written by Chris Chow, Christine To; photographed by Poon Hang Sang; edited by Virginia Katz, Richard Learoyd; production designed by Kenneth Mak; music by Shigeru Umebayashi; produced by Bill Kong, Jet Li, Yu, Yang Buting. In Mandarin Chinese and English, with English subtitles. A Rogue Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1.43. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence and martial arts action throughout).
Huo Yuanjia - Jet Li
Anno Tanaka - Nakamura Shidou
Moon - Sun Li
Nong Jinsun - Dong Yong
Yuanjia's mother - Paw Hee Ching
Chin - Chen Zhihui