Jet Li's Fearless
Rated PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Ronny Yu. Starring Jet Li, Betty Sun, Dong Yong, Shidou Nakamura.
Billed as Li's final martial arts epic (would that Jackie Chan be so thoughtful), Fearless is fittingly peripatetic, finding the Hong Kong superstar ricocheting across the screen from action set-piece to emotional overload and back again, like some gravitationally challenged cue ball out of time and out of hand. In what seems like his umpteenth "historical character role" (following turns as Fong Sai-Yuk and Wonf Fei-Hung, et cetera), Li plays Huo Yuan-Jia, the prideful and hotheaded founder of the Jinwu Sports Federation, who bested his enemies time and again only to force-fed the Flavorless Gruel of Woe by Karma, since the true battles are fought within. Or something along those lines. The film is bookended by segments featuring a newly humbled Fong Sai-Yuk taking on the Best of the West (who, strangely, all resemble Mr. Hyde from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), so this tale of spiritual redemption in the face of overwhelming physicality can also be viewed as a very timely lesson in the dangers of superpowered arrogance. No matter how you slice it, Fearless is Li in his prime; he's matured as an actor right alongside his mushrooming salary and Hollywood Stock Exchange price, and in Fearless, at the height of his sorrows, Huo Yuan-Jia's epicure-to-stoic character arc is downright moving. But as John Woo reminds us, heroes shed no tears, and so, neither, does director Yu (Bride of Chucky, The Bride With White Hair), who manages to bring both the storyline and the viewer to the brink of the edge of the lip of the pit of despair before hopping out of the grave (not unlike Mr. Vampire) and into a life, and a country by the looks of it, redeemed and resplendent. Wayward traditionalist that I am, I still believe Swordsman II is Li's most thrilling work, although, to be fair, that may well be because the film was both my official introduction to the actor's vast body of work and was also seen with a nearly all-Asian midnighter audience. That sort of thing can mark you for life if you're cinematically inclined and it certainly makes me pine for the time when the phrase "Jet Li's last martial arts film" would be laughingly kicked through the plate-glass window of the theatre (and then trampled to death beneath the fleeting feet of a floating Tong war). And then some.
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