This is apparently to be Jet Li’s final martial arts film, a fact which saddens the whole of martial arts fandom. So there was a lot riding on this one: would Jet the martial artist go out with a bang, or with a whimper?
Well, fortunately for all of us, it’s a definite bang. Jet, no in his mid-forties, may have slowed down a little, but he’s still got the effortless grace and balance that made him a star. Watching this man move is almost a religious experience: as an admiring character in Blake’s 7 once said, “Every part a moving part? Every move is executed beautifully, and every move is just as much as required, but not one hair’s breadth more. Pure poetry.
Of course, we’ve seen from Jet’s Hollywood movies that, no matter how great his skill, it’s still possible to make it look like a dog’s breakfast with poor direction and/or action choreography. Fortunately again, Jet’s final martial arts film is graced by two masters in this field, in the form of Yuen Wo Ping (choreography) and Ronny Yu (direction). Yuen’s fame has survived Hollywood, and he’s known worldwide as the action choreographer of films such as The Matrix and Ang Lee’s epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yu fared a little worse in Hollywood, being relegated to teen slasher movies, but he’s responsible for the Michael Hui comedy Chicken And Duck Talk, as well as the sublime wuxia fantasy The Bride With White Hair, so his credentials are solid.
And with three such masters in control, it wouldn’t have been possible to bollix this up even if they’d all painted themselves purple and done the Chicken Dance. So what we see is a beautifully-realised colonial China, with Jet as the jewel and centrepiece. Admittedly, he’s not so appealing in the early part of the film, as the prideful and truculent scrapper: he’s a trifle too old now to get away with that, and the character is less appealing than the endearingly boyish scrapper he played in Fong Sai Yuk.
But where Jet really shines is the second half of the film. He gives this role the gravitas that marked his turn in the Once Upon A Time In China series, and turns in a finely-nuanced performance that complements the fighting.
And the fighting is glorious. Oh, have I already mentioned that? Well, it deserves mentioning again. And again. And again. The film opens with a pr?is of Huo’s contest against three foreign champions, which is such a gem of classic martial arts cinema as will bring tears to the eyes of enthusiasts. Jet demonstrates his mastery of several weapons of the traditional Chinese armoury, and Yu and Yuen choreograph and film thoroughly credible fights in a spare elegant manner which shows off the skill of the participants.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the subtitles. There weren’t any on the Hong Kong disc that I watched, I believe because it was a condition of the US distributor that the Hong Kong release had no English subs. So I was a little apprehensive going in. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t really make a bean of difference. The story is simple and clear enough without dialogue translations, and although there were a few subtleties in conversations that I missed, overall I had no difficulty following the plot. In fact, the lack of subtitles left me free to appreciate the soft beauty of the Mandarin language, as well as Jet’s more mature performance. Now that the subtitled Universal DVD is out locally, you have the option.
So if the world of martial arts cinema absolutely has to lose Jet Li, this is a fine and fitting film to go out with.