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Fearless

Li rose to fame playing fighting monks or young innocents in Hong Kong action films, and then delivered a major change of pace for his U.S. debut by playing the villain in 1998's

Lethal Weapon 4

. For

Fearless

, Li shaves his dome once again to star in the kind of period martial arts film that made him the number one box office star in Asia back in the 1990s. With this latest film, Li wants to highlight his particular brand of martial arts known as wu shu. Li's physical prowess results from extensive martial arts training that began when he was a child growing up in communist China. He won five Mainland wu shu championships before he was a teenager. In 1974, a young Li even performed at the White House for President Nixon.

That same year, a Hong Kong producer approached Li about acting--Li's fluid and flamboyant wu shu style proving an attraction to prospective filmmakers. Li told me back in 1998, "A big movie company manager came up to me and said 'You're kung fu is pretty good. When you grow up, you want to become big star, a movie star?' Okay. I was eleven years old. Then every year he came to me and said the same thing. He said 'Oh you're still so young, grow up.' I say I eat a lot everyday but I'm still young. So then five years later, he said to me 'I don't want to wait anymore, just shoot right now.' So he gave me the leading role in my first movie, The Shaolin Temple . I was 17 years old. Then my life is changed."

And Li did become a star. He even eclipsed Jackie Chan at the Hong Kong box in the late 1990s. Fearless not only returns Li to period martial arts but also to elements of his past Hong Kong movies. There's a fight high above the ground that recalls Fong Sai Yuk , the presence of foreigners in China at the early part of the last century harkens back to the Once Upon a Time in China culture clashes. In addition, in the Once Upon a Time in China films, Li played real life Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hong and in Fearless he plays another character inspired by history. Li plays real-life martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia, who became a famous fighter in China at the turn of the 20th Century.

Fearless doesn't make us wait for the action to start, it opens with a tournament between Yuanjia and western opponents brandishing swords, lances and staffs. With breathtaking grace and speed, Yuanjia dominates them all. Then the film flashes back to his youth. His parents try to teach him that martial arts is not about fighting but rather about virtue and morality. The young boy, who's not allowed to fight because of asthma, just wants to win. Watching his honorable father lose a match pains him. He vows to become number one and to never let anyone beat him. His determination to be the best prompts him to ignore the values his parents felt were so important, and the film chronicles his rise, fall and return to honor.

As in the Once Upon a Time in America films, Fearless has Li ultimately fighting for the honor of China and its people. This time it's against the Americans, the British and the Japanese. But Fearless plays off of history in a less interesting and resonant way than the Once Upon a Time in China films did. The cultural and political conflicts in Fearless merely provide the excuse for a fight tournament between Yuanjia and opponents.

Li is no longer that seventeen-year-old phenomenon of Shaolin Temple but he still proves a powerful and impressive fighter. For the fight choreography, he turns once again to veteran Yuen Woo Ping who's best known here for designing the action for the Matrix films. Yuen and Li collaborated on Unleashed and as in that film, they rely on some wirework but keep much of the fighting down on the ground and mostly hand to hand. There's nothing here to top either of their best work but they do deliver some spectacular fights that display their inventiveness, as when Li, with umbrella in hand, takes on one opponent in the rain and never gets wet.

Ronny Yu directs the film with more grit and less flair than he usually displays. Yu gained fame for his over the top Hong Kong fantasies The Bride with White Hair, Parts 1 and 2 , and for his wickedly fun American horror The Bride of Chucky and Freddy Vs. Jason . Yu pushes the bounds of reality in Fearless but doesn't explode them as he did in his earlier films. He's more controlled and it's a bit disappointing that he never throws caution to the wind to deliver the kind of extravagance that he's famous for.

As for Li, this is a solid work but it doesn't top such Hong Kong films as Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk and Once Upon a Time in China . To anyone familiar with Li's Hong Kong films, you won't find anything new here but you'll find the familiar delivered with class and polish.

Fearless (in Mandarin with English subtitles and rated PG-13 for violence) is an entertaining and sometimes dazzling martial arts epic. It doesn't feel like a real career topper so I'm hoping someone will lure Li back to the genre to make a truly great martial arts film, one that makes all the earlier films fade from memory.

Companion viewing: Once Upon a Time in China, Fist of Legend, The Bride with White Hair

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