Call it "Jet Li's Wushu Retirement Party."
Li, long the overserious yin to Jackie Chan's comic yang, got his period kung-fu kick-start with 1991's "Once Upon a Time in China." Since then he's been in dozens of historical epics, swathed in silk and draped in torment. Betrayed masters, brutalized disciples, fractured clans, revenge a la carte. Sure, there have been plenty of attempts at modern fare ("Unleashed ," "Cradle 2 the Grave ," "The One " . . . ), but they've always seemed like an uneasy fit. Li's stern face works too well in a sepia-toned still, impassive yet ready to explode into action.
Thus ``Fearless," said to be Li's final martial-arts film. In many ways it's a reworking of ``Born to Defend ," his lone directorial effort. In the 1986 movie, his character fought for China's honor after World War II against various ill-groomed, oversize Westerners. With ``Fearless," the story is channeled through a historical figure, Huo Yuanjia , born in the late 1860s. Per the film's press notes, Huo was the creator of the Missing Fist style of martial arts and founde r of the progressive Jingwu Sports Federation.
As with almost every movie ``based on a true story," the facts and the fictional portrait diverge pretty quickly. In the case of ``Fearless," set at the turn of the last century, they occasionally go into extremes that wouldn't look out of place in a particularly baroque episode of WWE's ``Smackdown."
We first meet Huo (Li) at the start of a four-to -one match with (you guessed it) a series of mountainous foreigners. A British boxer, Belgian soldier, and Spanish swordsman -- each with his own colorful costume, dazzling hardware, and impressive facial hair -- take on Huo in turn. The matches are beautifully choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping and scripted with more than a little wit. When the Japanese samurai sword master (Shido Nakamura , who has a lead role in Clint Eastwood's upcoming ``Letters From Iwo Jima") steps into the ring, we snap 30 years into the past, to the beginning of our story.
Though the son of a martial-arts expert, little Huo has asthma and so is kept away from the Eagle's Claw, Monkey's Fist, and the other members of China's fighting menagerie. He learns in secret, however, and after his father is unfairly beaten in a public match, Huo swears to never be defeated himself. Years pass and our little boy has become Jet Li, whose sole ambition is to become the champion of Tianjin, his hometown. But c hallengers are everywhere, and as Huo's fame grows, shadows appear on his virtuous face.
The movie counts as a return of sorts for director Ronny Yu, still best known for 1993's ``The Bride With White Hair, " but now stuck churning out Hollywood product such as ``Freddie vs. Jason." Drama and humor, caricature and insight, romance and action are skillfully balanced, even as the film turns darker in its second act. Huo's fall comes with a costly victory against his last remaining rival, Master Chin. Tragedy follows, then a long voyage through the wilderness. While taking place in an idealized China that exists only in the imagination and on soundstages, there's some genuine pathos here, plus something approaching real acting from Li.
But is that what we're really here for? No. While showing his 43 years, Li is still capable of ripping his way through an ornate restaurant or clearing out 15 challengers in as many seconds. What he has a harder time battling are the film's digital effects, which range from inspired to laughable. The low point is a thrilling battle that's smothered with CGI in the middle going, almost to the point of incomprehensibility.
Thankfully Li fights his way out of that one, bringing the film and his martial-arts career to an honorable close. ``Wushu is not about winning, it's about discipline and self-restraint," Huo's mother tells him early on. The same could be said for Li.
Leighton Klein can be reached at email@example.com.