It's probably no coincidence that the best-received film Jet Li has made since becoming an international commodity is Hero, which cast him as one of several characters who employed martial arts as an act of Chinese nation-building. Put him up against Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 4 or partner him on mean American streets with DMX in Romeo Must Die, and the man still looks like he ought to be kicking ass in flowing robes under Chinese skies. Getting Li in that position is half the battle in making a successful Li vehicle. That's why casting him as Huo Yuan Jia, founder of China's esteemed Chin Woo Athletic Association makes perfect sense, even if all the scenes referring to his character's youth don't. Li's 42 and has started to look it, even if it seems not to have slowed him down. Whether or not that has anything to do with Li's decision to make Jet Li's Fearless his last film using traditional Chinese martial arts is unclear. But he certainly makes the most of his lifelong craft here.
A biopic with a script that would have worked just as easily in 1940s Hollywood, Fearless opens with Li's Huo facing challengers from around the world as part of an attempt to disprove China's reputation in the 20th century—when it was overrun with outside influences—as "the sick man of Asia." It's a pleasure to watch the none-too-imposing Li take down muscle-bound, mutton-chopped Europeans, but when he faces Japanese challenger Nakamura Shidou, the film stops to flash back to his childhood, returning to that showdown the long way.
But for all the melodramatic beats director Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair, Freddy Vs. Jason) makes sure not to miss, he also doesn't allow too much time to pass between fight scenes. That may owe less to economy than reports it was cut considerably before release, but it works in the film's favor. Though always charismatic, Li's most expressive when he lets fists fly. And though Yu has let too much Hollywood-style cutting slip into his craft, the fights remain electric. They're kept real by the skills of those onscreen and choreographer Yuen Wo Ping's decision to go easy on the effects and let the fighting speak for itself. That approach ends up dovetailing nicely with the tale of a man who, in this account at least, discovers himself by learning the virtues of compassion, patriotism, and fair play. It's as subtle as a spinning kick, but some films aren't built for subtlety.