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Published: Friday, 9/22/2006

Movie review: Fearless ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Later this year, Sylvester Stallone, at 60, will slide on his boxing gloves again, jog through the streets of Philadelphia, and get punched in the head numerous times for a sixth Rocky picture. (Expect "Yo, Adrian" imitations to run neck and neck with jokes about his challenger not having to worry about knocking out his teeth.) Meanwhile, if all goes as tentatively planned, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg will be persuading Harrison Ford to don the Stetson hat and bull whip for another round as Indiana Jones; if it is released in 2008, as expected, Ford will be, oh, 66 years young.

Age will be an issue in those films, of course. There's no sense ignoring it; even if, before the rise of our all-knowing, entertainment industry-savvy public, movie studios would have tried.

But without a doubt the classiest way of handling an aging action star goes to the new martial arts spectacular Fearless, which opens today. It's being billed as the final spin-kick for the kung-fu star Jet Li - surprisingly, at his insistence.

He's 43.

Despite a limited acting range - and his cold, hard glares in the terrific Hero constitute that entire range - the actor says he can no longer in good conscience maintain the perfectionism and athleticism required of a master of the art of wushu, better known as traditional Chinese martial arts. (Or kung fu, for short.) Fearless, however, doesn't feel like a summation, a grand finale, a final statement, or the one masterpiece that's eluded him. It's almost conventional, without wall-to-wall action. But as a sincere tribute to the philosophy behind wushu - sincere, verging on sentimental, that is - it's ambitious and almost classy.

Directed by Ronny Yu - who sliced 40 minutes out of the version released earlier this year in Asia, including an entire subplot with Michelle "Memoirs of a Geisha" Yeoh - the film seamlessly works Li's age, gallantry, and maturity into a story about the martial arts pioneer Huo Yuanjia, founder of the renowned Jinwu school (the same one Bruce Lee joined in his 1972 chopsocky classic Fists of Fury). You could even call it a biopic, I suppose, as it plays nearly as fast and loose with details as any biopic about Truman Capote or Johnny Cash. (The press notes even mention that not much is known about Huo.)

Fearless begins great, in Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century with a tournament in which now-revered Huo (Li) defends the honor of China against challengers from Russia, England, the U.S., and Japan - the grandest imperial powers of the time. Li's moves are breathtaking, still unique for action films: It's not a style of frantic kicks and lunges but one of crossed legs and tangled arms that untangle in surprising pirouettes and spiral outward, more modern dance (Alvin Ailey comes to mind) than Bruce Lee. Better yet, Yu uses a bare minimum of wire work and special effects - that really is Li.

Faced with his Japanese foe, Li remembers himself as a young man, and the story flashes back. Huo is brash, committed not to defeating opponents, but snapping limbs, breaking down their honor. Li's not really built for drama and the overacting shines through; which gets really embarrassing when the story grows even darker and Huo kills a man. The retribution is terrible, but it sets him on a path of enlightenment - unfortunately, a path complete with the love of a blind farm girl and a load of crops to reap. He learns patience, grows to know the discipline of wushu.

Frankly, it's boring, stalling the picture for more than 40 minutes. When it does rev-up again, when Li is fighting off men while holding an umbrella (shades of Gene Kelly), or tip-toeing across the lip of a stage high above the floor, it's hard to begrudge high-minded stabs. There's a sense Li is concerned movie audiences are missing the point of his martial arts. I would agree, but add: Is the alternative more corn?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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