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Award-worthy Jet Li at peak form in martial arts epic

In a perfect world, Jet Li would receive an Oscar nomination for his performance in the new film “Fearless.” After all, it’s a biopic, based on a true story and a real person, and the Academy likes nothing better (except maybe physical deformities or mental illnesses).

But just as the Academy slights comedians and dancers, it does not consider Li a “serious” actor. Still, recall just how effective Li was in his last two performances, the stoic, nameless hero of “Hero” (2004) and the confused, curious Danny the Dog in “Unleashed” (2005). And then there’s the obvious factor: no one else alive could have pulled off this role.

According to “Fearless,” Huo Juan-jia (Li) became a hero in 1910 when he competed in a martial arts tournament against four champions from all over the world in a quest to restore China’s dignity in an increasingly westernized land.

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But Huo’s biggest battle was with his own arrogance; in becoming the No. 1 fighter in town, he neglected his family, friends, finances and everything else. Li does a remarkable job of conveying this inner turmoil with his less-is-more approach. After 15 years as one of the biggest stars on the planet, he understands that the human face can reveal worlds when properly scrutinized.

Already a huge hit in China, “Fearless” moves somewhat according to biopic standards; it has a larger-than-life, rise-and-fall structure that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997) or Michael Mann’s “Ali” (2001), but with a palpable sense of soapy melodrama.

Fortunately, the project fell into the capable hands of director Ronny Yu. This marks the first time that Li has worked with an actual Hong Kong action director since perhaps Sammo Hung’s “Once Upon a Time in China and America” (which screened at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival). Yu is best known for his masterpiece “The Bride with White Hair” (1993), and he has a lovely, passionate gift for this old-fashioned, D.W. Griffith-like storytelling, not to mention a clear eye for swift, clean action.

Yu guides the film in great, epic chunks; to emphasize Huo’s despair just before his initial downfall, the director covers the film in a gray mist. But he also knows how to stop for a moment of contemplation, as when Huo learns whileplanting rice pats how to appreciate a cool breeze.

“Fearless” ultimately achieves the best of both worlds. It’s a gorgeous, knuckle-biter of a fight film, but also a moving tale with a heart as big as its roundhouse kick.

Movie review

Jet Li’s Fearless ???½

Starring Jet Li, Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li, Dong Yong, Nathan Jones, Collin Chou, Harada Masato

Written by Chris Chow and Christine To

Directed by Ronny Yu

Rated PG-13

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes

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