Fearless is being billed as Jet Li's final martial-arts epic. If this is true, it's too bad for a couple reasons: One, the performer is abandoning the genre that has seen his best work; two, the martial-arts movie that he'll last be remembered for is such a subpar product.
Fearless is inspired by the life of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial-arts master from the turn of the 20th century who was famous for uniting various styles of wushu, or martial arts, under one banner, the Jingwu Sports Federation. The film opens in Shanghai, 1910, as Yuanjia must face foreign fighters to defend the honor of his homeland -- a symbolic gesture of solidarity against the increasing impositions of the West and Japan. The story then flashes back 30 years, when Yuanjia was a child, and commences to show the path his life takes on the way to national celebrity.
Yuanjia is the son of a wealthy martial-arts master, and his early years as a burgeoning fighting champion are characterized by arrogance and lack of respect for his opponents stemming from, one is led to infer, the haughtiness inherent in being born with a silver chopstick in his mouth.
Yuanjia's transgressions eventually catch up with him and cause him great personal loss. He leaves his hometown to wander in the wilderness, eventually befriending and cohabitating with a blind girl, an old peasant woman, and a gaggle of children in a pastoral paradise. Faster than you can say "Pei it forward," you can bet these kindly simple folk will teach him valuable life lessons which Yuanjia will return to society to proselytize about.
Jet Li's best work -- from Hero back to the Once Upon a Time in China series -- has been Chinese-produced, and if these films are often well-intentioned or principled, they at least aren't cloying. The biggest flaw of Fearless is fundamental and it's American: Take away the rickshaws and junk boats and leitai fighting rings and all you're left with is just another bland formulaic piece of Hollywood-style feel-good trash, à la Cinderella Man.
The fighting in Fearless is above average, particularly a scene where Li and an opponent beat the hell out of a teahouse as they do to each other. But the audience is not given much reason for dumbstruck guffawing at the martial arts on display and Li is shackled tightly to that cumbersome story. No amount of clever choreography by Yuen Wo Ping can break him free.