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Originally published Friday, September 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Jet Li's Fearless": Fists of fury, soul of philosophy

If this really is Jet Li's final martial-arts movie, then it's a respectable one to go out on. But I still hope his "retirement" goes more...

Seattle Times staff reporter

If this really is Jet Li's final martial-arts movie, then it's a respectable one to go out on. But I still hope his "retirement" goes more like Stephen King's.

Li has said "Fearless" sums up his beliefs, and that, to paraphrase, he's said all he has to say in the genre. There is a welcome philosophical/spiritual facet to the flick, even if it sometimes seems to be fortune-cookie caliber. It boils down to a simple but elegantly told morality tale with beautiful sets and scenery and plenty of bracing action.

After playing legendary Chinese heroes Wong Fei Hung and Fong Sai-Yuk, Li takes on the role of Huo Yuanjia, the early-20th-century master who formed an influential martial-arts sports federation before his death in 1910.

Forbidden by his bad-ass father to practice martial arts as a child, Huo does it secretly and grows up a fierce but arrogant fighter who lusts to become town champion. He drinks with equal gusto, picking up the tab for his many sycophants and running up a mighty debt in the restaurant of his best friend (Dong Yong).

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Jet Li's Fearless," with Jet Li, Nakamura Shidou, Dong Yong, Betty Sun, Collin Chou. Directed by Ronny Yu, from a screenplay by Chris Chow. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence and martial-arts action throughout. Several theaters.

Huo's hubris leads to a miserable tragedy that drives him to exile. And after a few years of pastoral life with a hot blind girl named Moon (ironically, played by Betty Sun), Huo returns to the world to fight with the honor and mercy that he lacked before — and to take on all manner of foreign challengers who think Chinese men are wussies.

If you liked "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "House of Flying Daggers," you'll find this a bit less arty and magical but still sumptuous-looking, and with much more gripping action. Standing out among the great set-pieces are a match atop a 40-foot tower; a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred brawl that destroys the restaurant; and a mismatch against muscle-bound challenger Hercules O'Brien (Nathan Jones).

There's minimal gravity-defying wire-work in the action, thanks to veteran choreographer Yuen Wo Ping — whose résumé includes working with Li on the classics "Fist of Legend" and "Once Upon a Time in China," as well as "The Matrix," "Kill Bill" and "Crouching Tiger."

It ain't all punches and kicks, though. Huo's longish period of spiritual discovery may send some to get popcorn, but I found it an adept shifting of gears.

As for Li, he's said he wants to focus more on acting roles. Laughable? Compared with his previous stoic performances, he's almost as manic as Huo. Not quite a revelation, but it shows potential. Looking at it from the other end, I think that if Sean Penn took on some martial-arts roles, he'd be much better rounded in his craft.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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