A kung-fu tear-jerker may seem an odd combination, but “Fearless,” advertised as the last martial arts movie that Jet Li intends to make, also manages to be a paean to Chinese nationalism (and traditional eastern virtues generally) and a wushu version of the “Rocky” formula. Almost childishly naive but beautifully crafted and both viscerally exciting and oddly touching, the picture will prove–if the star holds to his decision–a fitting capstone to his action-hero career.
Ably directed by veteran Ronny Yu, the picture is a highly romanticized biography of Huo Yuanjia, the founder of a Chinese sports club in the early twentieth century, portrayed here as a young, arrogant wushu champion who learns the true meaning of martial arts discipline in time to redeem himself as an exponent of his people’s cultural traditions in an age of increasing western dominance. Through the story, Li is able to teach the real meaning of wushu to audiences that might share the character’s initially erroneous idea of the skill as a means of self-glorification and aggression. It also gives him an opportunity to demonstrate that, even in his forties, he can still move with the best of them.
“Fearless” begins with the older Huo dispatching a trio of western opponents in a tournament in Shanghai in 1910. As he readies himself for the final bout against the imposing Japanese champion, the film flashes back to his youth in northern Tianjin, showing his father losing a public bout and the boy, furious, taking on a preening youngster from the victor’s supporters. Despite his father’s opposition, Huo trains in the martial arts and becomes a local celebrity, eventually challenging a rival master in a brutal battle over a perceived slight. His victory, however, turns to ashes when he finds that he was misled about the insult and his mother and daughter lose their lives as a result of his actions.
To this point “Fearless” has had plenty of action, some of it quite spectacular (and accomplished naturally, without a lot of special effects trickery); now it becomes far quieter and meditative as the broken Huo finds himself in a distant rural area, where he’s effectively adopted by a blind peasant girl (Betty Sun) and her grandmother and learns, while working in the fields, the virtues of humility, self-control and fidelity to the ancient ways. Returning to his home, he’s shocked to see the Chinese kowtowing to westerners, and seeks help from his oldest friend, restaurateur Nong Jinsun (Dong Yong) to establish the Shanghai sports club as a place to teach the true wushu ways. His success against a U.S. strongman (Nathan Jones) leads the foreigners to set up the four-against-one tournament to destroy his popularity. At this point the film reverts to the opening, with the final match against the Japanese champion (Shidou Nakamura), who proves a man of honor himself when his sponsors seek to win by underhanded means.
Li isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he gets by in the early segments playing loud and extravagant, effectively shifting in the second half to a more reserved, calm demeanor; and throughout he exhibits his customary dexterity in the martial arts. He gets able support, especially from Yong as the friend unafraid to point out his failings and Sun as the girl who effectively becomes his savior. He’s also fortunate in the work of Yuen Woo-ping, who staged the plentiful fight scenes with aplomb, and the behind-the-camera crew: Poon Hang-seng’s cinematography is lovely throughout, and both Kenneth Mak’s art direction and Thomas Chung’s costumes are exceptional. And editors Virginia Katz and Richard Learoyd smoothly integrate the quieter expository material and the explosive combat sequences.
Fans of the wushu genre may be disappointed that Li has chosen to close his string of movies in the genre with a picture that, while providing him ample opportunity to exhibit his prowess, is less a spectacular exhibition of his skill than a ruminative lesson about the authentic spirit of kung-fu and the philosophy of life that undergirds it. But the mixture of rousing action and quiet stateliness, of combat and reflection, in “Fearless” proves a surprisingly rich and satisfying love letter by Li to the martial arts and the values they represent to him.