September 28, 2006

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Jet Li’s Fearless (PG-13)
Jet Li challenges everything we know about aging by handing out some terrific, snazzily choreographed butt-kickings in Jet Li’s Fearless, a lovely and engaging action movie based on the life of a late 19th-century Chinese martial arts master.

And, yes, where many of the movies of this kind are romances or fairy tales, Fearless is a solid, fight-scene-centric action film.

Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) was born to a family of valiant martial arts masters. Always wishing to learn the arts and be the best, he pushes himself to defeat all other martial arts masters. Slowly he becomes famous for his fighting abilities, gaining disciples and debt (because disciples have zeal but little cash). Even though he’s draining the family coffers, Huo Yuanjia can’t help but live large, stiffing his restaurant-owning friend after charging rounds of drinks and leaving his young daughter waiting for him at home while he’s out carousing.

Eventually, Huo has bet everybody but one man, a fellow master. He and the other master eye each other but don’t come to blows until Huo learns that the other master has beat up one of his disciples. Huo rushes to get some barely-called-for retribution and kills the other master. Huo Yuanjia doesn’t revel in his superiority, even though it is what he’s claimed always to want. His victory sours further when the master’s godson gets revenge on Huo (or, more specifically, on Huo Yuanjia’s family). After finding assorted family members dead in his home, Huo learns that the disciple who was beat up actually provoked the master into the fight.

Naturally, the shame of realizing he’s killed for no good reason and destroyed his own family in the process leads Huo Yuanjia to eschew the mastery he’s just won and set out, Jesus-style (or Moses-style, depending on which Cecile B. DeMille film you last watched) into the wilderness. There he meets Moon (Betty Sun; why are they always blind?) who helps him understand that the true path to being a great fighter is — and I’m oversimplifying here — not being an arrogant jerk. Emboldened by this wisdom, Huo Yuanjia returns to his home city to find that foreigners (mostly British) have overrun the land, treating its people like the second-class citizens that the Brits decided all the natives of its territorial contests were. Moved by the plight of his people, Huo Yuanjia begins to fight again, this time for the glory of one China, a strong nation that is united behind a common idea (that idea: kicking out the foreigners and having some national symbols with stars on them).

You’ve got to kind of be impressed; every time one of these martial arts epics comes out of China they manage to work a healthy dose of Chinese propaganda in there — just in case while watching the movie we started to think that we might want to back Taiwanese independence. It’d be like if every time Jerry Bruckheimer made a movie, you’d get to the end and realize that the message was “USA rules!” Oh, wait…

And what’s a little propaganda between friends anyway? The Chinese make all of our consumer goods, it seems only fair that we would overlook any campaigning during their big splashy movies.

The real set piece of the movie is a fight between the spiritually renewed Huo Yuanjia and four of the world’s best fighters at a contest rigged by the British. Huo Yuanjia knows it’s rigged and fights anyway, a move that is eventually honored by his Japanese competitor. The first three fighters are Europeans and watching Huo Yuanjia quickly dispatch them is tidily beautiful. His fight with the Japanese opponent is shot more as a dance, a bruising dance, sure, but a dance with a rhythm, pauses and crescendos. These movies perfectly accentuate Jet Li’s grace and, even as he defeats opponents with impossibly dainty moves, we are somehow able to believe (or at least accept) what we’re seeing.

Fearless is a fun movie in the way that far too few movies are fun — it offers beauty, excitement and humor and a completely appealing hero. B+

— Amy Diaz


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