Jet Li's emotion in motion
By BRYAN WALSH (Time)
Updated: 2006-02-13 16:13
His acting may still be stiff, but Jet Li's new
film proves that nobody can dish out pain so expressively.
"Character is action,"
wrote henry James, and though the Master was probably not referring to
chop-socky kung fu movie stars, the dictum definitely fits Jet Li. An actual
martial-arts champion, the Beijing-born Li has made a career of acting with his
feet and his fists.
FINAL CUT: Li is
unbeatable in the ring
That's fortunate for him, because when he's standing still or forced to
speak, Li can be as stolid as a stone, especially in his Hollywood films. (His
Romeo Must Die, costarring the late hip-hop singer Aaliyah, featured quite
possibly the most awkward stabs at romance ever witnessed outside a
middle-school dance.) But put Li on the offensive, against a live opponent or
10, and he opens up on screen how he fights is who he is. The man can reveal a
surprising spectrum of emotion in a roundhouse kick.
In Fearless, Li's new Chinese-language film, the star gets to showcase the
full range of his action characterization while kicking butt in cathartically
violent ways. Playing Huo Yuanjia, a real-life fighter who energized China
during the last dark days of the Qing dynasty, Li puts a Buddhist spin on his
Instead of spending the film singlemindedly seeking revenge (see: every kung
fu film ever made), Huo is forced to learn that there's more to martial arts and
life than just winning or losing, living or dying.
He comes to represent something larger than himself, and trades a warrior's
mere honor for a grander spirit. Though hard-core Li fans may disdain the
philosophizing, Fearless is a satisfying reminder that he is more than just an
That doesn't mean Li has become a proponent of nonviolence. At the start of
Fearless, Huo is a ball of highly skilled but undirected martial-arts
aggression; his only goal is to become the top fighter in his hometown of
Kung Fu star Jet
Li, seen here 06 January 2006, said his latest film "Fearless", which is
opening in Beijing, would his last foray into the martial arts genre.
He accomplishes this in rapid order,
knocking off any and all contenders in a series of brutal one-on-one fights.
This isn't elegant Ang Lee combat, fencing on treetops.
Huo cracks skulls, snaps fingers and shatters knees. Surrounded by an
entourage of drunken sycophants, squandering his money, ignoring the warnings of
his wiser friends, Huo acts like a 19th-century Mike Tyson.
He's clearly headed for a fall. It comes when Huo, for nothing more than
vanity, takes on Master Qin (Chen Zhihui) in a gorgeous teahouse, which they
reduce to rubble. The fighters go at each other with every available weapon,
until a crazed Huo lands the killing blow.
His victory comes at a terrible price. One of Qin's students slaughters Huo's
family in reprisal. Overcome by guilt and self-loathing, Huo drifts away, ending
up in the kind of idyllic rural village where a beautiful blind girl named Moon
can help him understand that existence is about more than just beating people
Thankfully, this pastoral interlude is fairly short, and any romantic
feelings between Huo and Moon are kept properly subtextual. But Huo's
chilled-out and centered demeanor translates into a gentler, more powerful form
of kung fu. That serves him well when he departs for a Shanghai that's been
drawn and quartered by foreigners. There, in a spurt of nationalism, he takes on
Western and Japanese fighters, eager to prove that Chinese aren't the sick men
The duels in Fearless are ably coordinated by Yuen Wo-ping, the master behind
the Matrix films. But this time there are no hidden wires, no camera tricks.
Yuen must have enjoyed working with professionals such as Li a lot easier when
you don't have to make Keanu Reeves look like a kung fu master.
Director Ronny Yu's best-known films are the gorefests Freddy vs. Jason and
Bride of Chucky, which should tell you all you need to know about his
aesthetics. At least Yu goes easy on the red-blooded nationalism: Japanese star
Shido Nakamura is allowed a measure of honor as Huo's final nemesis.
Li has warned that Fearless might be his last martial arts movie. If so, he's
chosen one that shows just how far he's come from the spin-kicking automaton of
his earliest films.
The emotional journey of the average kung fu hero is briefer than a quick jab
to the nose, whereas Huo suffers and changes. If Li is incapable of expressing
that change on his face, it shows in his moves.
Hard kung fu is replaced by a softer, more flowing style, and aimless anger
by peace, even in battle. However, Fearless lacks the pure martial energy of
Li's rawest films, such as Once Upon a Time in China.
Pacifism, while a nice philosophy, doesn't make for the
most dramatic action flick. But for Li, a serious Buddhist in real life, it's
the sort of action that reflects his surprising spiritual character while still
allowing him to get in his kicks.