Listen to me very carefully:
Jet Li is NOT retiring from doing kung-fu in movies.
Yeesh. I understand we need to sell a movie however we can, but there’s a certain danger in relying on intentional mis-translation to prop up your film. Let’s get a grip here: Li’s declaration was that he is retiring from making “martial-arts films,” which has a slightly more specific meaning in Mr. Li’s native China than it does to most Westerners.
To U.S./European audiences, any action film where people use martial arts tends to get labeled as a “martial-arts” (or “kung-fu”) films. In the East, especially China and Hong Kong, the genre of “martial-arts” (or “wuxia”) applies narrowly to films where the story takes place in, and involve the philosophy of, martial-arts. “Master! He has insulted our Crane Style school! You must take revenge!” That kind of thing. As “kung-fu” is more widely practiced in Asia, and is generally a part of the everyday culture, more general action films where characters use kung-fu are generally seen simply as “action films.” To a Hong Kong audience, seeing a policeman character in a modern setting confront a baddie by snapping into Eagle’s Claw Stance isn’t at all unexpected; whereas to “us” it’s unusual and seems to warrant some special classification. Hence the amusing annointing of Brit tough guy Jason Statham as a “kung-fu” star on the basis that his character in the excellent “Transporter” series frequently utilizes Asian fighting styles.
Enough. Li says he’s quitting Wuxia, which leaves him wide open to continue doing all sorts of action films where he will, presumably, still use his famed skill with the martial-arts. You don’t have to worry about him popping up in a damn Merchant Ivory flick or running for Governor of California any time soon. Meanwhile, we have “Fearless” as Li’s self-appointed capstone to his long run with the genre.
While not his finest Wuxia turn (he has, after all, previously toplined genre classics such as “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Hero”) “Fearless” is at least a fittingly reverent celebration of the genre itself and it’s prefered form of plot-structure: The prodigal-son who’s “breakthrough” in the realm of combat is linked to his “breakthrough” in the realm of spiritual enlightenment. In this case, the subject is a heavily-fictionalized biography of Hou Yuanjia, founder of modern martial-arts in the form of China’s Jing Wu Sports Federation.
In this version of the story, (set in 1800s China) Master Hou is the rising kung-fu star of his province, unbeatable in the ring but also arrogant non-introspective. He drinks too much, neglects family and simple pleasures, and maintains a group of “disciples” who are little more than a 19th Century equivalent of a rock-star’s entourage. When he eventually goes too far in quest to become the local champ, it sets in motion a tragic chain of events that leads to the revenge-killing of his family.
Rescued from self-imposed exile by kindly rural peasants, he learns the value of humility and hard work and heads back home a changed man… only to find “home” reduced to shambles as an influx of European/American/etc interlopers has stripped China of it’s native pride; a situation which Huo aims to rectify by institutionalizing martial-arts and challenging Western (and Japanese) fighters to competitions. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with the scheming Japanese envoy (Japanese director/critic Masato Harada, who you may remember doing this same basic bit in “The Last Samurai”) who schemes to interfere.
Truth be told, it’s a little difficult to “buy” Li as the “heel” version of Huo in the earliest portions of the film. But he sells the hell out of his “darker” scenes toward the middle and slips into the cool Zen detachment of the “enlightened” Huo in the 3rd act as though it were an old slipper. The action scenes, while not as numerous or sprawling as one may expect post-“Hero” are a great deal of fun, trading in the currency of expertly-choreographed weapon-vs-weapon, style-vs-style dust-ups. Of special note is a brutal mano-a-mano showdown with “Hercules O’Brien,” played by Nathan Jones; a massive former competitive strongman whom you can also see trading blows with Tony Jaa in “The Protector.”
And while the overall story arc will hold very few surprises for fans of wuxia films (but plenty of surprises for anyone with a passing familiarity with the actual events this is supposedly based-on) the film-proper is a vintage example of it’s own genre, and a fitting sendoff for one it’s brightest modern stars.
FINAL RATING: 8/10