Having already played real-life heroes Hung Hei-kwun (“New Legend of Shaolin”), Fong Sai-yuk (“The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk” and its sequel), Wong Fei-hong (“Last Hero in China” and the “Once Upon a Time in China” series) and Chen Zhen (“Fist of Legend”) -- his portrayal of the latter two rivaling, respectively, the famous incarnations of both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee -- Li now turns his attention to turn-of-the-century fighter Huo Yuanjia, a contemporary of Fong's and Wong's who earned fame as both a fearsome fighter and martial arts innovator, laying the groundwork for the more secularized form of Kung Fu known as Wushu (embraced by faith-phobic Communist leaders in the 1950s as a kind of cultural compromise), at which Li himself specializes. The story depicted in the film is almost entirely fictionalized (reportedly grounds for pending legal action from Huo's family), but it does seem to capture the spirit of a man whom many still regard as a triumphant defender of Chinese pride.
The trajectory is, ironically, not unlike that of Moses in “The Ten Commandments” (with some eerily similar moments), as a youthful Huo, arrogant and obsessed with accolades, is forced by tragedy to confront his demons, undertaking a soul-searching odyssey from which he returns wiser, stronger and ready to defend his people's honor in the face of foreign humiliation. It's not quite a let-my-people-go scenario, but, as Huo faces off against an assortment of foreign fighters, it aims to stir many of the same emotions.
There is no denying the impressive confluence of veteran Hong Kong film industry talents on this film -- the triumvirate of Li, director Ronny Yu (“The Bride With White Hair”) and fight choreographer/action director Yuen Wo Ping (“The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is as elite as one is ever likely to find on a film of this sort. Most impressive is the uncanny physical prowess that Li continues to exhibit at age 43, still able to awe and astonish with his speed, precision and agility. Yu seems particularly energized by the return to Chinese-language martial arts fare, having spent the last decade as a hired Hollywood hand on such films as “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Bride of Chucky.”
But there is also something sorely lacking in the picture; part of the problem is that so much of it feels derivative of Li's previous films, but the greater issue is that, alongside those same and far more modestly budgeted efforts, “Fearless” seems burdened by expectation and misplaced ambition. Put simply, Li and his colleagues are trying too hard to impress, delivering a fusillade of fight scenes that are undeniably proficient yet utterly uninspiring.
Admittedly, it's a bit unfair to gripe about the work that Li and Wo Ping have done together, either here or in such previous films as “Once Upon a Time in China II,” “Fist of Legend,” “The Tai-Chi Master” or even the recent “Unleashed.” What's also undeniable, however, is that Li, when working with Wo Ping, is clearly playing second fiddle to the choreography. His work with Corey Yuen-kwai (now putting his mark on “The Transporter” series), on the other hand, has more consistently enabled Li to express himself and his personality through the choreography, delivering some of the most memorable moments of either man's career in such films as “My Father Is a Hero,” “High Risk” and the “Legend of Fong Sai Yuk” pictures. It's that self-aware sense of glee with which Li built his career that seems painfully absent here, rendering the film largely soulless -- a quality made all the more glaring in light of the lead character's soul-reclaiming spiritual journey.
Genre fans will nonetheless get their ample dose of kicks, both literal and figurative, including the obligatory showdown with oversized, animalistic white guy, here featuring the hulking Nathan Jones who, as it happens, can also be seen fulfilling the exact same role in Tony Jaa's new film, “The Protector.” Starring Jet Li, Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li, Dong Yong, Pau Hee Ching, Chen Zhihui, Ting Leung and Nathan Jones. Directed by Ronny Yu. Written by Chris Chow and Christine To. Produced by Bill Kong, Jet Li and Ronny Yu. A Rogue release. Martial arts. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Rated PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout. Running time: 106 min.