There are early scenes in the 2006 martial-arts epic Fearless that require Jet Li to play an asshole. These are some pretty funny scenes. Assholism isn't, generally speaking, his thing—pained nobility is his thing. He is a legitimately world-renown ass-kicker, of course: Before he made a single movie, he was a Chinese Wushu champion who retired at 19 with nothing left to prove. But as an actor, Li does just fine as long as he says in his relatively narrow lane, playing stoic, good-natured, reluctant fighters who only turn into human kick tornadoes when it's the only option left, or when, as in this amazing Fist of Legend scene, wounded pride makes him rage-blind. He almost never leaves that lane, and when he does, things get weird.
In the Expendables movies, Li is the only one who doesn't seem all that comfortable snarling out '80s-movie one-liners, and that's not just because he's working in a language that's not his first. In Unleashed, he needs to play a trained, mechanized killer, but somehow stays in soulful-tragic-hero mode. (Unleashed is awesome, by the way.) In Lethal Weapon 4, he's the villain, but he's not exactly an asshole—he still has a certain gravity that demands respect. He's not comfortable unless he's sacrificing himself to preserve Chinese cultural pride, or some such thing, and that's mostly what he does in Fearless.
Still, when we first meet him, he's a local fighter who swaggers around his hometown, mocks his opponents, and runs up huge bar tabs that he can't pay, rhapsodizing about not giving a shit about politics even as the British come to control his homeland. Li mostly conveys this dickitude by baring his teeth, wiggling his eyebrows, and throwing back liquor with goofy relish. There's some cackling. It's not remotely plausible, but it's a whole lot of fun to watch.
But sadly, he can't remain in shithead mode for the entire movie. Li plays Huo Yuanjia, a real-life Chinese folk-hero martial artist famous for beating foreign fighters in the early 1900s. Huo's family sued the movie's producers, including Li, for deviating too far from Huo's actual life — they didn't like the asshole parts—but they lost, partly because Hong Kong audiences don't exactly demand hard authenticity in their hero stories. And Fearless is an old-school hero's-journey type of thing, a story about a man who figured out his own shit and then went on to inspire his homeland. Chinese nationalism is a huge part of it, as it is with so many of these movies. But you can enjoy it just fine without worrying about that, because it's Jet Li fighting people, filmed beautifully and staged in ways that let him do amazing things.
Li was already a star in America by the time Fearless came around: He'd made Romeo Must Die and The One and the wonderfully ridiculous DMX buddy picture Cradle 2 the Grave. (That one really needs to be on Netflix.) He hadn't been back to Hong Kong, where he made his name, for a few years, so this was something of a grand homecoming. He intended it to be his final statement on Wushu, claiming it'd be his last historical martial-arts epic.
Director Ronny Yu was also coming back to Hong Kong after spending some time in America. He'd made sweeping drugs-for-your-eyes movies like The Bride With White Hair in the early '90s, but then he went to Hollywood and made, among other things, Freddy vs. Jason, one of the best movies of this century. Fearless might've been a wounds-licking move: He'd been fired from Snakes on a Plane before filming began. So Yu took his Hong Kong return as an opportunity to break out his old tricks, lighting fights by thunderstorm and showing hair whipping dramatically. He did his job; this movie looks amazing.
The movie starts mid-fight, something every action movie should do. Huo is in a packed building, fighting in front of Chinese countrymen and scheming foreigners alike, as a series of white guys attempt to punch or stab him. With a sort of calm sportsmanship, he hands three different opponents their asses. The movie then goes back into his past, but we never have to wait too long between fight scenes. He handles one old rival on a stage that looks 50 feet taller than any of the other buildings in town, which makes me wonder how the crowd can tell what's going on. He takes things too far with another, the two fighters tearing up a restaurant and setting a bad chain of events into motion. Or he gets bored early on, deciding to take on all his challengers at once, and fucks them all up without effort.
My favorite fight is against Nathan Jones, a bald Australian muscle-giant. Jones is a former armed robber, powerlifter, and WWE wrestler who sucked so bad that his match had to be pulled from Wrestlemania at the last minute. These days, he's mostly the evil henchman who gets beat up in martial-arts movies; his fight against Tony Jaa in The Protector is classic material. Here, he plays Hercules O'Brien, an American wrestler, and his fight with Li is like a fever-dream vision of pro wrestling: lots of screaming and jumping and falling out of rings. In the end, Li doesn't just beat Jones; he also earns his respect by saving him from getting his head impaled on some exposed nails.
Fearless made a ton of money in Hong Kong and didn't do too badly in America, either; it currently ranks as one of the highest-grossing foreign-language movies ever over here. It's not on the same level as Fist of Legend, Li's masterpiece, or as the visually lush kung fu art film Hero. But it still works. It's a big, sweeping, old-school hero story with some great fights. And it also has Li being an asshole, at least for a while.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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