Billed as Jet Li’s last martial arts epic and his swansong to wushu, this proficient if prosaic period picture never quite ascends the heights of Li’s ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ nor affects the visual splendour of his more recent ‘Hero’, but it at least feels authentic and full-blooded. Loosely based on the life of martial arts master Huo Yuanjia (Li), whose famed Jingwu fighting school Bruce Lee attended in ‘Fist Of Fury’, the film begins in 1910 with Huo taking on three out of four foreign fighters in a Shanghai competition before flashing back to his beginnings as the son of provincial Chinese champion. Humiliated in a scrap with a local bully, the young Huo vows never to be defeated again, devoting himself to emulating his father, although any subsequent success is blighted by an overwhelming arrogance and inner torment. Following a family tragedy, Huo flees to the countryside, learning humility and respect through his friendship with Moon (Sun Li), a blind woman in a small farming community, eventually returning home to found his Sports Federation and begin the call for all China to reunite against the influx of Westerners and their values.
Li’s fans shouldn’t feel short-changed by the varied and plentiful fight scenes which, in contrast to, say, ‘Kung Fu Hustle’’s CG-enhanced chopsocky, rely less on major wirework and effects trickery than on bone-crunching action, celebrated action director Yuen Wo Ping’s crisp choreography and Li’s quick fists and feet. Yu, back from his Hollywood sojourn with ‘Bride of Chucky’ and ‘Freddy vs Jason’, is less successful, however, in dealing with his star’s limited emotive abilities, the message-heavy script’s melodramatic philosophising and a sappy ending.