- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Jet Li brand apparently is big enough to warrant inclusion in his film titles.

Now, with “Jet Li’s Fearless,” the lithe action star is saying goodbye to the particular style of martial arts, known as wushu, that brought him that cachet.

“Fearless” lets him tell a broader story of peace, personal growth and national pride in his inimitable style. To be sure, we have to endure plenty of the choppy acting and signpost storytelling all too characteristic of martial-arts movies. Mr. Li makes it worth our while, however, showing a greater range in portraying one of China’s enduring heroes.

The 43-year-old actor plays Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who overcame personal tragedies to become a symbol of pride for China at the turn of the 20th century.

We meet Huo as a young boy whose asthma and small size make him easy pickings for bullies. Flash forward a few decades, and Huo is the best fighter in the land — but it’s not enough for him. He has grown arrogant and shortsighted, and even the counsel of his best friend Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong) can’t set him straight.

Huo’s fall from grace begins when he intemperately challenges a fellow martial artist based on incomplete information. The battle’s fallout forces Huo into exile, where his true journey begins.

“Fearless” represents an uneasy mix of fighting spectacle and heartfelt biopic. The film stages several neat battles royal in the first half, including a dizzying scrap on an elevated platform where stepping outside the ring means death.

Director Ronny Yu (“Freddy vs. Jason”) stages the fights with the right balance of credible fisticuffs and wire trickery. Our fighters don’t soar through the air a la “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but they defy gravity just enough to lend the battles an air of mystery.

When Huo is forced to face his inner demons, the story loses its way, but only for a moment. His awkward relationship with a blind woman hints at a deeper subplot, but we’re back to the action in no time.

Far better is the bond between Huo and Nong, a kinship that defies rationality but makes perfect sense all the same.

The film’s final act introduces the specter of imperial thuggery courtesy of the wicked West, but it’s simply a pretext to set the stage for one more slugfest.

“Fearless” does more than entertain intermittently. It longs for a time when civility, honor and forgiveness overshadowed vengeance. Pretty heady stuff for an action movie, but Mr. Li moves with such grace that he makes such impulses seem like second nature.

**1/2

TITLE: “Jet Li’s Fearless”

RATING: PG-13 (Extreme fighting sequences, bloody visuals and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Ronny Yu. Written by Chris Chow.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

WEB SITE: www.jetlisfearless.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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