If it's true that Jet Li has starred in his last martial arts film, then it is reasonable to assume that Fearless is in part an audition for future dramatic roles. In which case, it is a very poor audition indeed.

Fearless, whose English-language title has nothing to do with the content of the film whatsoever (the original title is simply the protagonist's name, Huo Yuan-Jia), is the fact-inspired story of a great Chinese fighter who, shortly into the 20th Century, fought against the hand-picked champions of four colonial powers and won, thereby inspiring the downtrodden Chinese population to...something. From the film, his legacy seems solely limited to being famous and founding an international gym franchise.

In every way, this is precisely the film I expected it to be, and somehow it still manages to be disappointing. What it does well, it does very well, and what it does well is fight scenes: director Ronny Yu is wholly within his comfort zone here (he abandoned Snakes on a Plane to do this project). Whether digitial trickery was used to make the seemingly weightless wushu battles possible, or just the natural skill of several great martial artists, I cannot say. Certainly, Jet Li is an international superstar for great reason, and his skill is on full display in the first half-hour and last ten minutes of this film.

This leaves one hour.

That one hour is dedicated to a plot.

That plot is dedicated to proving how bad it is to engage in fighting for the voyeuristic joy of an audience.

I once encountered the theory that the worst sin Last Action Hero committed at the script level was telling a story about how Hollywood action films are stupid lies, while pitching itself at the audience for typical Hollywood action films. Fearless does something similar: it is at every level conscious of being the Last Jet Li Martial Arts Film, and it is dedicated to the idea that Jet Li martial arts films are basically immoral. Far be it from me to complain when genre films set their ambitions beyond the customary limits of that genre; but there's ambitious and then there's resenting the audience, and I can't quite decide which of those Fearless is playing at.

None of that is obvious while the film is unspooling: what is, is how damn boring and badly-made that central hour is. After violating the rules of sportsmanship and honor in a non-regulation fight that ends with a man's death, Huo Yuan-Jia travels to the country, for an idyllic stay in a small village where he learns the joys of rice-planting and falls in love with a blind girl. It is really a drama with a light romantic flavor, and it fails entirely. Jet Li cannot act it, and Ronny Yu cannot direct it. He cannot even manage a simple "watch the seasons roll by" montage, using CGI to show the passing of years over the rice paddies, making something that looks like the worst video game of 2002 rather than an actual movie (I dare you not to burst out laughing when the "snow" starts to fall). As for Li, he tries to show the move from callow youth to experienced adult largely by shrinking the size of his smile from a hideous rictus-grin in the first third to a small twitch of the lips in the middle. His chemistry with Li Sun, playing the blind girl Moon, does not exist, despite her best efforts to show how infatuated she is, which unfortunately includes the choice to gaze admiringly at him; admiring gazes are fine, but not generally considered an option open to the blind.

It's a pity that Jet Li's farewell to the genre that birthed his stardom has to be so scuttled by mediocrity, but understandable: he feels the need to say something profound and important. But film history is littered with the dead careers of action heroes who couldn't make the transition into greater things - such as convincing line readings, for example - and Li appears poised to join them. His current project is an American action film, which probably doesn't stretch him very far out of his comfort zone; but it seems depressingly likely that the future holds more polemics and half-assed morality plays, and I fear greatly for his proposed teaming with Jackie Chan, as I cannot imagine that Grumpy Old Ninjas* could be anything other than a terrible waste of them both. As Fearless was a waste; in those early scenes, when Li was at his best, I wanted to cry out: "you're good at this! Don't stop! There are so few like you!" But he did stop, and I was left alone in the dark with my bitter fanboy tears.