Universal // 2006 // 141 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // August 1st, 2008
Fate made him a warrior, courage made him a hero.
Back in 2006, Jet Li proclaimed that Fearless would be his final martial arts (or wushu) movie. His career up until that point was a strange one. American audiences knew him mainly for his roles in urban kung-fu flicks like Rise to Honor and Romeo Must Die; meanwhile he was becoming an international martial arts legend akin to Bruce Lee with films like Hero and Once Upon a Time in China.
His choice for a "final" wushu film couldn't have been more appropriate than Fearless, where he portrays a legendary real-life Chinese hero who not only fights foreign opponents, but also upholds the traditions of a dying Eastern culture.
Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) is the son of a wushu master. As a precocious child, he wants nothing more than to be like his father. When he bites off more than he can chew, and gets the pulp kicked out of him by a local bully, Yuanjia vows never to lose again...and he doesn't.
Yuanjia grows up to be a skilled fighter whose chip on his shoulder may just be growing too large to carry. He mercilessly beats his foes, racks up huge bills at his best friend's tavern, surrounds himself with disciples who only want to party, and leads an overall wanton and irresponsible life. Like most E! True Hollywood Stories, everything comes crashing down on him.
It's only after Yuanjia has lost everything that he realizes the true meaning of wushu: to avoid conflict. He then sets about righting his wrongs, reclaiming his title as the undefeated wushu master, and founds his own fighting league.
The film, directed by Ronny Yu (Freddy Vs. Jason), balances folk mythology and historical accuracy to tell the story of one of China's legendary heroes.
There are plenty of things to like about Fearless. It's a colorful, well-choreographed fight movie. It's an underdog sports film, even though the main character never actually loses a fight. It's also a film that addresses the death of a society's tradition and culture. These are all statements I believed when I first saw the PG-13 theatrical cut of the film in theaters. Now, Universal Studios has released Ronny Yu's original director's cut of the film, which adds 35 minutes to the runtime. This may be Yu's final vision for the film, but the additions, while not terrible, aren't really necessary.
The most obvious addition to the director's cut of Fearless is the opening scene, which takes place in present-day China. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) appears in front of a skeptical room of Olympic committee members, trying to explain to them why wushu deserves to be a part of the games. From there, she begins to expound on the legend of Yuanjia, and essential sets up a frame for the film. What's strange about this opening sequence is that it never pays off. This modern day frame for the legend of Yuanjia is never closed, resulting in the Yeoh cameo feeling more like a tacked on nod at the upcoming Chinese Olympic Games than anything dealing with the actual story.
The other additional scenes are more welcomed, however, and flesh out Yuanjia's story a little bit more than before. More time is now spent with Yuanjia as a child, while he learns the ropes of wushu behind his father's back. It's nice to see a little bit more of the early rise and fall of Yuanjia in the first act of the film, but it merely elongates the ideas presented adequately in the original theatrical cut.
The added scenes of the director's cut, with the exception of that strange opening scene with Yeoh, don't hurt the film by any means. They merely just give Jet Li and Ronny Yu some breathing room. Sadly, these additions don't solve a basic problem that the theatrical cut suffered from: pacing.
Fearless attempts to balance the thrill of great kung fu films with the touching soul of a Crouching Tiger, but the execution is a little goofed. The first act, which chronicles Yuanjia's early success and eventual fall, is briskly paced, with extravagant fight scenes hitting the screen every ten minutes or so. Then, after Yuanjia is a broken man, he washes up in the countryside, where he has to re-learn what's important in life. While this is a necessary dramatic step for the character, the movie essentially comes to a grinding halt so that Yuanjia can fall in love with a blind farm girl named Moon (Betty Sun, Iron Road). Once he's over his past and returns home, the third act can begin, and the butt-kicking and dramatic mythology resume.
Uneven pacing aside, Fearless is certainly one of Jet Li's finest films. His martial arts ability is on full display here, and he even has to act -- which he does reasonably well. The supporting actors are all appropriately cast, and Li's opponents often steal the show with their outlandish antics -- gotta love that Hercules O'Brien (Nathan Jones)!
From a technical standpoint, Fearless manages to hold its own as a historical picture, chronicling the emergence of Western culture in Chinese society. It's hard to believe that the guy who brought you Freddy Vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky could create a film like Fearless. The camera work is, for the most part, excellent. There is just the right amount of slow-motion, fast-motion, and cutting within the fight sequences to add visual flourish without compromising realism. Unfortunately, the film's computer generated effects don't fair as well, especially during the green screen shots of Yuanjia's first big fight, atop the super-high platforms. The digital effects overall tend to stick out; all of the fighting is so authentic that even the briefest use of computer trickery is noticed.
The film transfer itself is good, although not as strong as it could be. Universal was wise to keep the director's cut on its own disc, to keep the compression fairly minimal. The sound is excellent, however, with a stellar score by Shigeru Umebayashi. If you're the kind of moviegoer who hates to read subtitles, be aware that the director's cut only comes with a Mandarin language track. For all that goofy English dubbing, you'll have to stick with theatrical or unrated versions.
The second disc of this release features the original theatrical version of the film, and the international unrated version. The only difference between these two is the PG-13 version's truncated bone-breaks and lack of significant blood. Having all three versions of the movie on two discs is swell, but unfortunately that means there's not much room for special features. (Note: Universal originally shipped this release with two copies of the second disc, so make sure you check yours as soon as you buy it!)
There are only two supplements accompanying this latest release: a featurette and a deleted scene. The deleted scene, which runs about six minutes, is pretty much a throwaway, and much of it is featured in the director's cut. The featurette, titled "A Fearless Journey," runs over 15 minutes, and is much more interesting. The video is an overview of the production of the film, featuring interviews with Jet Li and director Ronny Yu. Li talks about how personal this film was for him, and how it is indeed his last "wushu" fighting film.
This double-disc release has been let loose curiously close to the release of Universal's summer blockbuster The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which just so happens to feature both Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. So, if you pick up this film, you'll get a free ticket to see that...yeah.
Fearless is one of Jet Li's best performances, about on par with his awesome work in Hero. While I felt that the theatrical and/or unrated cut of the film was perfectly fine, the director's cut does add more plot and development. If you look past the awkward modern opening scene, the rest is okay. Thankfully, this package preserves all three versions of the film, and is, in that regard, a great buy.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 141 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Unrated and Theatrical Versions of the Film
* "A Fearless Journey" featurette
* Deleted Scene
* Free ticket to The Mummy 3
* Original DVD Verdict Review