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(2006) (Jet Li, Dong Yong) (PG-13)

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Action: A martial arts fighter must contend with the various repercussions of his desire to be champion of his region.
It's the early 20th century in China and Huo Yuanjia (JET LI) is the best Wushu martial arts fighter in the Tianjin region. Although his father (COLLIN CHOU) never taught him the fighting style and his mother (PAW HEE-CHING) tried to instill its correct philosophy into his head, he's determined -- after being bullied as a child -- never to be beaten again. Accordingly, and much to the dismay of his lifelong friend Nong Jinsun (DONG YONG), he'll fight anyone to become the champion of all fighters.

Yet, his increasingly arrogant ways and hard drinking soon lead to tragedy resulting in him wandering the countryside where a blind girl, Moon (BETTY SUN), and her Grandma (QU YUN) not only save his life, but also adopt him into their farming village. That eventually has a calming effect on his demeanor and life philosophy.

Refreshed and wishing to make amends, he returns years later to Tianjin and then on to Shanghai where he plans to start his Wushu Sports Federation -- in hopes of uniting the Chinese in the face of demeaning pressure from outsiders -- and must battle formidable opponents such as the hulking American Hercules O'Brien (NATHAN JONES) and Japanese fighting champion Anno Tanaka (NAKAMURA SHIDO).

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although violence has always been an integral part of most practices of it -- mainly as self-defense -- the notion of martial arts automatically brings fighting to most people's minds. And much of that has to do with the movie industry -- both Hollywood and Asian houses -- that catered to their audience's desire to see men (and a smattering of women) give others a beating via kicks, punches and more. Along the way, the bigger elements of self-discipline, confidence and the spirituality of it all were pretty much relegated to the backseat, if ever seen.

Then along came the art house martial arts films, such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and others that showed another side to such practitioners and their philosophies. That introduced both to viewers who never before entertained the notion of seeing a flick by the likes of Bruce Lee, let alone lesser Seagal and Van Damme types.

Accordingly, and with what's reportedly his last martial arts picture, Jet Li wants to emphasize the practice's philosophy over the combat in the not-so anonymously titled "Jet Li's Fearless." It's based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese-born fighter who started the Wushu Sports Federation way back in the early 20th century as a way to bring the fractured people of his country together and create a united front against imperialism and anti-Chinese sentiment from the outside world.

I'm not intimately familiar with the real man's life so I can't attest to the factual accuracy, but the film -- penned by Chris Chow and directed by Ronny Yu -- follows a standard movie trajectory of an arrogant character reborn through tragedy and the kindness of strangers. And like many a movie that tries to exude an air of self-importance, it unnecessarily begins near the end, rewinds to the beginning, and then eventually leads us back to the starting point as we watch the main character and his story unfold.

While I appreciate the included theme of self-discovery and the rearranging of one's life philosophy, the film and its makers pretty much shortchange all of that. At least that's true in this version that's reportedly been excised of a significant number of minutes from the way it was originally intended and released.

Not only do entire segments conspicuously feel absent, but also the all-important transformation from arrogant fighter to reborn philosopher doesn't get the time to mature enough to become something more than a cinematic contrivance. The first half or so feature's Li's character being determined to be the fighting champion of his region, presumably due to some childhood bullying and his father never teaching him the arts, both of which are briefly touched upon during some flashback moments.

He then proceeds to fight a number of people in bouts where the contestants must sign waivers of death, and enjoys his success and public adulation, but that only feeds his insatiable appetite to take on even more opponents. That eventually leads to a big battle to the death, a conflict with resultant unexpected tragedy that then detours both him and the plot onto a new course.

He's then saved and taken in by a kind blind girl -- Betty Sun playing a cute but clichéd, walking and talking persona of life philosophy that comes off a bit more than heavy-handed in driving home the film's points. Years supposedly pass (we see just one seasonal rotation -- the rest presumably ended up on the cutting room floor), Huo is a changed man, and he returns to make amends personally and professionally.

But while he apologizes to his dead family members and his childhood friend (Dong Yong), he ends up fighting again in scenes just as episodic as those from earlier in his "career." Sure, his arrogance is gone, he's stopped drinking, and he makes sure not to kill anyone this time around, but everything simply returns to the battling.

Which would be fine had such footage and skills been amazing. Unfortunately, Yu and his crew resort to the tried but not always true, namely wire fighting, camera tricks, and too many edits. That not only makes one question Li's abilities now that he's firmly in middle-age, but they also diffuse the action, what with the sudden slow-motion segueing into sped-up footage, interspersed with far too many cuts.

And that might not have been horrible had the drama been better, but Li simply doesn't have the acting chops to pull off this sort of role. That's especially true early on when he's supposed to be playing against his usual type (of silent but explosive confidence) by doing the arrogant fighter bit (where he looks absolutely perplexed about how to portray that type). After the mid-term transformation, his character calms down and he actually starts to grow into the role, but he's so unlikable and unwieldy early on, that it's hard to feel for his character as much as we're supposed to.

Other performances from those playing supporting characters fare a bit better, but only when they're given the time to do so, mainly referring to Sun and Yong both of whom play voices of reason to Huo's competitiveness and arrogance. One of the film's potentially more interesting characters -- Nakamura Shido's Japanese fighting champion -- gets a good scene with Li as they do some tea as life philosophizing before their match. But once the fighting begins again, Shido's character becomes annoyingly inconsistent.

Which pretty holds true for the film, although I'm guessing much of that has to do with the reported massive cuts for the U.S. release. Okay for Li's fans and his style of fighting, the picture is visually handsome (although not to the point of "Hero"). Yet, it drowns much of its message in numerous fighting sequences that unfortunately but not surprisingly pale in comparison to what up and coming martial arts star Tony Jaa has been demonstrating in his. Perhaps it is time for Jet to hang up those highflying kicks. His "last" martial arts film, "Jet Li's Fearless," rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 20, 2006 / Posted September 22, 2006

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