What a coincidence! The same time Jet Li swore off martial arts epics, Judge David Johnson swore off freebasing Motrin IB!
Jet Li's martial arts swan song…sort of.
For his wushu finale (but he'll back for more violent action movies!), Jet Li (Unleashed) steps into the role of Huo Yuanjia, a martial arts master during early 20th century China, a time of cultural turbulence for the nation. Master Huo founded the Jin Wu Sports Federation, which still exists today, and knew how to kick people in the face really fast. Jet Li was made for this role.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with a block of opening text talking about how China, in the early 1900s was a country in flux, bullied by Western nations, whose inhabitants were scoffed at as "sick men of Asia." A fighting tournament was arranged to embarrass the uppity Chinese, targeting their champion, Master Huo, with the best the other nations had to offer. There's some fighting and we flash back 30 years earlier when Huo was a boy.
The film then tracks Huo's development as a fighter, and how his temper and naiveté ultimately betrayed him and his family. Tragedy upon tragedy piles up and Huo exiles himself to a small farming community where he plants rice, purges his hatred, and courts a hot, blind girl.
But asses still require kicking, and Huo returns home, reconnects with an old friend, and sets up the Jin Wu Sports Federation, which promotes non-violence and the interconnectedness of all kung fu disciplines. But China has become overrun with foreign powers that see Huo's can't-we-all-get-along mentality threatening, and set up the tournament to beat the Ishtar out of him.
This is a pretty cool movie. But before I roll with the review, I want get one thing out of the way: Fearless is in no way an excuse to bash the West. Truthfully, I went into the film with these expectations, and while I don't want to come across as overtly jingoistic, I wasn't in the mood for a cultural guilt trip. But Li and director Ronny Yu have sidestepped a blame game film and crafted a "historical" action movie with sympathetic characters on all sides. The venom is reserved for a nameless cabal of sinister foreigners, which proves to be a weakness in the movie, but more on that later.
As I was saying, Fearless is a pretty cool movie. Though the disc proclaims that it was produced by the same folks behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this kung fu period piece is a totally different beast. Yu's tale is leaner, less poetic than Ang Lee's and more straightforward storytelling-wise. Fearless seems to have visions of being sweeping, what with the dramatic music and panoramic—and admittedly, gorgeous—landscape shots and plenty of tragedy, but its action sensibilities and modest runtime make it something more akin to "epic-lite."
I suppose that's my major criticism of the film; it aimed for goosebumps and maybe a shed tear or two, but whether it was some iffy pacing or maybe the constraints of the story itself, I didn't feel moved when the end credits rolled. Heck, I was most bummed out with the realization that this will be the last time I'll see Jet Li running around with one of those kickass Chinese haircuts. The film is glaringly chopped up into three acts: the first details Huo's childhood and his rise to power as the preeminent fighter of the region, the second shifts to his self-exile and spiritual reawakening, and for the third we're back in the China metropolis where Huo finds his place in the cultural legacy of his people. For me, the narrative struggled the most in the third act, as Huo's transformation from prodigal son to grand unifier of Chinese culture blew by way too fast and ultimately failed to deliver the emotional wallop it should have (and banked on for the big dramatic payoff at the end.)
But enough about stupid drama. What about the fights? Choreographed by the great Yuen Woo Ping, and well-shot by Ronny Yu, the fisticuffs are fast and exciting. Actually, the film is pretty much non-stop action for the first act before the brakes slam on and Huo shifts attention from busting ass to planting rice. The bouts are inventively staged (one has Li and his opponent squaring off on an elevated platform that can only be accessed by jogging up poles) and the quality of the wushu is just what you'd expect from a Li/Ping team-up. Unfortunately, some pretty obvious wirework and special effects take away from the excitement; it's not on the level of Crouching Tiger, but for a film supposedly rooted in history, the physically impossible stunts are a little tough to digest. Still, there's lots of great kung fu action, though ignore what is said in the accompanying documentary about Fearless outpacing Fist of Legend in the fights department. Pbbbttttt.
Before the first fist flies, you'll notice one of the strongest attributes of the film: the picture quality is stupendous. Fearless is officially a reference disc for image quality, especially the farm scenes, which give Yu's lens a breathtaking view of pastures and mountains and skies. Two 5.1 tracks—Mandarin and English—are both impressive, though I tend to stick with the original Chinese and English subtitles for a more authentic feel. Two extras of note: "A Fearless Journey," is a decent, though marketing-centric making-of documentary and the included deleted scene is actually quite robust featuring a good slice of action.
One more thing: the disc includes both the unrated and theatrical cuts, but aside from some brief shots of blood, I don't see much difference between the two.
I'm a huge Jet Li fan, and Fearless is a suitable wrap-up for his wushu film career; I just wish there was more narrative pop at the end and less camera trickery in the fights.
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Scales of Justice
• "A Fearless Journey" Making-of Documentary
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