Though Fearless has been touted as Jet Li's swan song, his devoted fans shouldn't worry too much. It's doubtful that Jet Li will never again throw a kick on-screen rather, this film is simply his farewell to a certain kind of action picture: the historical martial arts epic.
It's a genre that's served him well over the years, from Once Upon a Time in China (1991) up to 2002's acclaimed Hero. Now, he's bidding adieu to the format, much like Clint Eastwood did in his Western curtain call, Unforgiven.
Fearless showcases Li's stunning athletic grace in blistering fight scenes, but also gives him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. Here he plays another Chinese folk hero, in a fictionalization of the real life of Huo Yuanjia (1867-1910), a legendary fighter who was the Joe Louis of his time, inspiring his nation through highly publicized bouts with foreign fighters. Born a sickly child, Yuanjia blossoms into a driven combatant. He's determined to preserve his honor and never lose, honing his Wushu skills to the point where he dispatches one opponent in the rain before he has the chance to close his umbrella. He becomes maniacally obsessed with winning, but his relentless tunnel vision distracts him from his duties to friends and family. Eventually it catches up with him; a feud with a rival master turns tragically deadly and sends our hero on a spiritual quest for meaning that leads him to a peaceful rural retreat complete with affection from a lovely blind girl (Betty Sun). There he learns the virtue of patience, through working the land, even taking time to enjoy the breeze as it rustles the treetops.
Many elements seem cliché, but Li and director Ronny Yu deliver a philosophical counterpunch to conventional action fare. Fearless also inverts the traditional revenge scenario: instead, our hero must overcome the desire for vengeance in order to achieve perfection.
The movie softens the Chinese nationalism of many kung-fu flicks, where brave warriors defend their family, their temple or the country from foreign invaders. While the foreign enemies, from a French swordsman to a monstrous British wrestler are simply cartoons, the shocker is his final opponent (Shidou Nakamura), a judo master and swordsman who's actually thoughtful and respectful, a first for a Japanese character in a kung-fu movie.
Fearless isn't as profound as it hopes to be, and doesn't quite live up to all of Li's ambitions, but it more than satisfies once the fighting begins.
In English, Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.