It does not have the ravishing images of Hero but it does not have the cheesy plot of Cradle 2 the Grave, either. For his last action film, Jet Li has decided to give us a reverential biopic about Huo Yuanjia, hero of the Chinese people and founder of a school of martial arts.
Action films need to get us on the side of the hero quickly so they can get to the good stuff — the action. The quickest way is revenge, as Tarantino showed with Kill Bill. It can help to give us a reluctant hero who tries to avoid violence and is drawn into it, a theme brilliantly tweaked in A History of Violence. That gives us the best of both worlds because the violence is forced upon the hero, so we can enjoy it without guilt. And once in a while we get a hero who begins violent and then learns a better way. And then gets violent again, but in the more in sorrow than in anger variety. That way, we get to enjoy the angry violence and the righteous violence, too.
It is this last category that Jet Li has chosen; perhaps he is saying that like the hero he plays, he has decided that there are more important things than fighting. Huo begins as an arrogant, hot-tempered, impetuous man who fights out of pride. But after he causes great tragedy in his own family and another, he learns that martial arts are about honor, discipline, and concentration, and that winning is not what he thought it was.
The movie begins in 1910. Huo (Jet Li) walks into the ring. Everyone in the audience knows that this fight represents more than a contest between two people. It is a fight for the honor of the Chinese culture, under assault from Westerners who think that no one in China has the strength or intelligence to defeat their champions.
Huo is scheduled to take on not one but four champions from the other side. In three thrilling bouts, he defeats the challengers. Then, as he gets ready for the fourth, we go back in time to see what brought him to this place.
The middle section sags, as Huo takes on a bigger entourage than MC Hammer, refusing to acknowledge that they only follow him because he buys them drinks. And then Huo goes off and learns about the Meaning of Life from Simple Country Folk who know enough to stop planting rice and feel the breeze. Yes, the blind girl in the hat is the only one who truly sees, get it?
Without the sweep and scope of the great Chinese films, this rests on the fight scenes, which are beautifully staged but never transcend the kicks and punches to power the story.
Parents should know that this movie has intense and graphic scenes of violence. Characters are injured and killed, including a woman and a child. There is brief strong language. Characters drink and there are scenes in a bar and references to abusing alcohol.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the last fight shows us about the combatants’ ideas about honor. Why was what Huo learned about planting rice important? What did he mean about learning from the best?