Now in a longer director’s cut, “Jet Li’s Fearless” is a variation on a type of movie once as common as the sports underdog picture: the one about the cocky wise guy who thinks he’s better at something than anyone else, and only changes after his best pal gets killed.
But you know what? The good old stuff still works if you’re willing to give it a fair shake.
Jet Li, for my money the best actor to emerge from martial arts films, is Wushu practitioner Huo Yuanjia. The film’s underlying theme is that an honorable defeat is preferable to a dishonorable victory. From childhood, he’s wanted nothing more than to be the fighting champion of his Chinese province.
His only equal is Master Chin and, due to a misunderstanding, the two rivals get into a brilliantly choreographed battle royal in a teahouse. Death and revenge result. Yuen Woo Ping (“Kill Bill”) stages the fights with a fluidity that makes most contemporary dance sequences look like they’re performed by box turtles.
The narrative is built around Huo’s efforts to unite the Chinese for a contest pitting him against four champions from occupying powers. This starts and ends “Fearless” with extraordinary action scenes.
The picture is billed as Li’s farewell to kung-fu moviemaking and director Ronny Yu (“Freddy vs. Jason”) serves him well. The movie is exciting, stunning to look at and emotionally rich. It’s in Mandarin with English subtitles, but don’t let that run you off. It’s worth doing a little reading for.