Universal // 2006 // 142 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 9th, 2008
Fate made him a warrior. Courage made him a hero.
"Revenge will only bring us more bloodshed."
Jet Li's Fearless tells the true story of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), one of China's most famous martial arts champions. We begin by going to Huo's childhood. He was the son of a very skilled fighter, but Huo was not permitted to fight. He had asthma, and his father felt that the art of wushu would be too challenging and dangerous for Huo. Despite this, Huo determined to be a great warrior one day. He wanted the ability to defeat his enemies, and felt that mastering wushu would give him great strength. Huo never really listened to those who tried to tell him that wushu was about much more than mere brute strength.
Sure enough, as Huo entered adulthood, he began to master the art of wushu. He quickly attracted many disciples, and became quite a popular figure. Unfortunately, Huo was not a particularly responsible man, and allowed his pride to rule his decision-making. This leads to a tragedy that shakes up Huo's life in a horrible way, and causes the fighter to leave his life of violence behind. He wanders the country in a state of reflection, attempting to find inner peace and redemption. Eventually, Huo realizes that his approach to wushu was deeply flawed, and vows to change his ways forever. He determines to teach others the true meaning of wushu, and prepares for a battle that would become an important moment in Chinese history.
Jet Li's Fearless was billed as Jet Li's final traditional martial arts epic, and I'm happy to report that if that is true, it is a fitting farewell. Perhaps the film won't please action junkies as much as something like The Protector, and it doesn't have enough visual flair to tickle the lovers of cinematic poetry like Hero, but it's got Li's spirit all the way to its core, which is a irreplaceable attribute.
Li intended the movie to be his definitive statement on the art of wushu, the style of martial arts he practices. His film is a very loose biopic of Huo Yuanjia, who founded the Chin Woo Athletic Association, a martial arts school. The movie follows certain traditions of martial arts movies, but is also quite different in numerous ways. Our hero, to begin with, is not a likable character. He's an arrogant jerk looking to pick a fight with anyone that dares to challenge him. Li plays the early scenes with the sort of sneer that usually accompanies a story's villain. The opening third of the movie is where all the action is, with a series of increasingly intense and well-staged fights as Yuanjia ascends to being a champion fighter. Yuanjia's character is a vengeance-driven warrior seeking nothing other than personal glory. The second act focuses on Yuanjia's transformation and redemption, and the final act brings him back for a emotionally-charged climax.
While there is a decent amount of action, the virtues Fearless extols are honor (which is common in such films) and anti-violence (not so common). The movie's climactic action sequences are well-staged, but function more as windows into the character of the individuals involved. Many fight scenes in similar movies contain a lot of talk about honor and respect, but the value of human life just doesn't seem to play into that. Li argues that respecting and protecting a life is an essential element that has been lost from the genre. Hardened martial arts junkies may complain that Fearless is a dull, idealistic sermon, but I don't think so. Li's real-life feelings about these issues lend his onscreen messages an authenticity that's usually lacking in movies these days.
The hi-def transfer is a very good one, with deep blacks and sharp background detail. Facial detail is just a bit lacking at times, but it's not worth complaining about. Flesh tones are well balanced, and the image manages to thrive during both darker scenes and very bright scenes (we get a generous handful of both). While the film isn't quite a showcase disc knockout, it succeeds in pretty much every way. The audio is really superb, offering a well-balanced and exciting listening experience. The pounding percussive score by Shigeru Umebayashi gets a strong mix, and bass is pretty aggressive at times. Some of the fight scenes are just thrilling from an audio standpoint, really giving your speakers a solid workout. Again, there isn't a lot here that will leave your ears in awe, but it's very effective. Jet Li's Fearless delivers on every basic level in the audio/video department. The only supplement noted on the packaging is the lame "My Scenes" feature, which allows viewer to arrange their favorite parts ("Me want only fighting!") into a single viewing experience. However, there is another important supplement included here. It's a good featurette called "A Fearless Journey," (16 minutes) which primarily focuses on the moral themes of the film and Li's feelings on wushu. It really is a worthwhile making-of piece, avoiding the usual EPK-style fluff. A nice surprise. I wonder why Universal decided not to promote its inclusion? The same featurette was included on the previous two DVD releases, which were equally light on supplemental material.
We get all three versions of the movie here, and they are not necessarily equal. The one worth watching is the full-length director's cut, which allows for more quiet scenes with the characters. The American release of the film is a full 40 minutes shorter, and it often plays like little more than a simple action reel. Much of the film's depth is lost in the theatrical version, so unless you're only getting the flick for the fight scenes, you should skip it. The same applies to the "unrated" version, which is simply the theatrical version with three minutes of extra violence.
Fearless is a solid film, and a graceful exit from the genre for Jet Li. Li is not only a good athlete, he is also a good human being, and a good actor. This flick is worth a look. The Blu-ray disc is worth an upgrade for audio/videophiles, and having all three versions of the film on one disc is quite convenient. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* My Scenes