It's always a bad sign when an actor or director puts his name in front of the title. Movies pretty much rise or fall on their own accord, no matter who's the creative force behind them, but the proprietary investment makes the fall that much more thudding. In what's being promoted as his last wushu role, Jet Li plays real-life martial artist Huo Yuanjia (1868–1910), whose defiance of colonial powers is here given the Paul Bunyan treatment. Paul Bunyan on steroids. And HGH. And some Buddhist wisdom thrown into the protein shake. Then a final syringe of Chinese nationalism. Huo's best friend from childhood tells us, "These are turbulent times. Our country has grown weak. The West is dominating us." To which Huo responds by successively fighting four Western champions in a showdown to restore national honor and unity.
The battle only comes, however, after the film's long central flashback, which relates how asthmatic child Hou eventually became a wushu master, defeating all comers until pride (and the bottle) got the better of him, leading to bloody revenge and a contemplative period of self-exile. Li, lately an exponent of Tibetan Buddhism, obviously means Fearless to peacefully promote "discipline and self-restraint" (this from Hou's mother), but Chinese politics being what they are, Hou's rebirth takes place in a rice paddy idyll— a postcard Brigadoon of the Cultural Revolution—not disputed Tibet. Wise peasants, including cute blind Moon (Sun Li), put Hou back on the right spiritual path—meaning back into the ring in Shanghai, where a Japanese rival waits.
None too soon for Jet Li's impatient fans, who'll suffer the didactic melodrama and wall-banner slogans—"We must strive to better ourselves!"—just to see the guy fight one last time. And Li is still pretty spry for a man of 43. (One particular drubbing he gives to an opponent's groin, below the belt but never unfairly square in the nads, will make all men in the audience involuntarily cross their legs.) Director Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky) overloads most bouts with CG and sound effects (all the Westerners grunt like animals compared to civilized Li), though he cuts the volume for part of the climactic tussle. Finally stripped of the speeches and embellishment, Li dances best without music. BRIAN MILLER