This story of Huo Yuanjia, who in the early 20th century founded the Jingwu Sports Federation, a martial-arts school that incorporated gymnastics and national self-esteem into its curriculum, was obviously a labor of love for Jet Li. Huo helped instill a sense of pride in the Chinese people when they were under the thumb of various Western powers, and Li feels his message of cooperation and self-improvement is still valid in today’s world. Yet this is not so much a message film as it is a martial-arts epic with a philosophical backdrop. And it is utterly sincere without being treacly or preachy.

Jet Li’s Fearless opens in 1910 Shanghai, as Huo (Jet Li) takes on four champion fighters in a series of matches supposed to prove once and for all that the Chinese are an inferior race. After Huo has defeated three Westerners, the film flashes back 30 years to the lead character’s origins. Huo’s father runs a martial-arts school, but forbids his son to train with him because he is small and sickly. Nevertheless, Huo practices on the sly and soon becomes one of the most feared fighters in his home city of Tianjin, while also attracting a large group of acolytes.

Yet this success comes with a price: Huo becomes arrogant and selfish, determined to rise to the top at all costs. But after one victory leads to the death of a revered wushu (the generic term for traditional Chinese martial arts) master, Huo flees to the countryside, where over the course of several years he learns humility while living with a village of rice farmers. Huo then returns to the big city, where he establishes the Jingwu school, becomes famous all over again, and winds up fighting the best from four different countries. The film ends with the final match, against a Japanese opponent.

Fearless is old-fashioned martial-arts filmmaking, and that’s all to the good. There’s not a ton of wire work here, and very little CGI. Most of the matches shown (choreographed by the masterful Yuen Wo Ping) therefore have the ring of authenticity about them. All this is aided and abetted by top-of-the-line production design and shimmering photography. (The film was shot in Mainland China.)

Some may accuse Fearless of being overly sentimental, but the picture actually wears its emotions with a sense of pride, and this is one of its strongest suits. If the film has flaws, in fact, it is that the redemption-through-self-abasement plot is a bit hoary, and despite his generally pleasing screen presence, Li is limited as an actor. Yet if sincerity translates into box-office success, Fearless, already a big hit in Asia, should repeat the pattern in the U.S. If nothing else, it is an engagingly personal film that seems an appropriate way to end Jet Li’s wushu career.