'Jet Li's Fearless' Falters

Friday, September 22, 2006

"Jet Li's Fearless" fears nothing indeed: Not lack of a plausible story, not murky motivations and idealized settings and cliched characters, not too much overblown wire work in the martial arts sequences.

It's best for audiences that wish to wallow in its one-dimensional naivete. Li plays Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial arts fighter of the first decade of the last century, who must triumph over his inner demons to triumph over his country's outer demons. The movie follows that arc, opulently if unconvincingly. It's handsome, well-populated and offers beautiful scenery and settings. But "House of Flying Daggers" it ain't; maybe "House of Fallen Arches"?

Instead it follows a well-traveled path: Young Yuanjia is headstrong, self-important and thoughtless. He drives ruthlessly to become city champion and lives big-time in a luxurious mansion, ever hungry for more fame and the center of an adoring circle of disciples.

When one tells him he has been humiliated by a rival family, Yuanjia goes ballistic, seeks revenge and unleashes fury on Earth. The fight choreography is by the famous Yuen Wo Ping, and while it's technically impressive -- Li remains fast, supple, amazingly coordinated and able to do fabulous things even without the wires -- it's so pumped up it comes to seem ridiculous.

Death follows death, and soon Yuanjia has fled the city, and he finds rural purity and simplicity in the arms of blind farm-girl-who-looks-like-international-supermodel, as played by Betty Sun. The rural section of the film is the most ridiculous, by the way: It makes rural China look like Middle Earth. "Where are the cute little Hobbits?" you keep asking.

-- Stephen Hunter

Jet Li's Fearless PG-13, 103 minutes Contains exaggerated violence. Area theaters.

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