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Fearless
|     review    |     notes     |     availability     |
     

(left) Jet Li as Huo Yuanjia, and (right) Li and Betty Sun.
Chinese: 霍元甲
Year: 2006
Director: Ronny Yu Yan-Tai
Producer: Bill Kong, Jet Li
Action: Yuen Woo-Ping
Cast: Jet Li, Shido Nakamura, Dong Yong, Betty Sun Li, Nathan Jones, Collin Chou (Ngai Sing), Bau Hei-Jing, Masato Harada, Jacky Heung Cho, Anthony De Longis, Jean-Claude Leuyer, Brandon Rhea, Mike Leeder, Ian Powers, Michelle Yeoh
  The Skinny: Jet Li's much-anticipated Fearless is a solid and entertaining action drama that rises above a pedestrian screenplay and a few narrative omissions thanks to potent themes, exhilarating martial arts sequences, and classy production values. Billed as Li's final martial arts film.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Jet Li returns to Hong Kong Cinemas with Fearless, a solidly entertaining martial arts epic billed as the star's final martial arts film. Directed by Ronny Yu, Fearless stars Li as real life martial arts master Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910), founder of the Jingwu Sports Federation. As a child Huo is deemed too sickly to follow in the footsteps of his father (Collin Chou AKA: Ngai Sing), but Huo trains on the sly anyway in hopes of becoming a martial arts master. Fueling his desire is the perceived failure of his father, who was never able to strike the final killing blow in regional exhibitions, and thus never became the champion Huo always dreamed he should have been. To Huo, the goal is fame and glory; things like sportsmanship, goodwill, and humility are just afterthoughts.

Huo learns enough kung-fu to become a champion as an adult, but his success is marred by pride, jealousy, and an overwhelming immaturity. When rival kung-fu master Chin apparently offends one of his followers, Huo uses that as an excuse to seek out and challenge Chin, partially to avenge his student, but mostly to assert his own superiority. But at what cost? Huo's hubris is his downfall, and the so-called "Champion of Tianjin" is soon stripped of everything he holds dear. A broken man, he wonders the countryside until he finds shelter in a rural village. He meets Moon (Betty Sun), a kind blind girl who teaches him humility and simple honor. Soon Huo is back on the martial arts horse, only this time he fights to defend the honor of the Chinese people and not to establish his own name. Huo earns redemption, but unsavory foreign types make it their mission to take him down, lest the Chinese people actually start having some pride in themselves. They plot to destroy him, but Huo's legacy may be too great to destroy. There's also fighting, and plenty of it.

The above may sound like I've just given away the whole movie, but really, I haven't. That's because Fearless is not a plot-driven, beat-em-up action picture where Jet Li takes on thirty martial arts students at once in some overcrowded dojo. Nope, Fearless is a different type of cinematic beast; it's a classy biopic featuring Jet Li as a real-life figure renowned by the Chinese people. The part is a departure for Li, as it's an iconic dramatic role that requires more acting than simply glowering at some bad guy before kicking his ass. Huo Yuanjia is a classic hero out of a screenwriting textbook; he's a man who rises from the ashes of his own failures to become an inspiration to a nation, and prime fodder for martyrhood. It's not an easy role for an actor used to playing childlike heroes or stoic badasses, but Li pulls it off with considerable grace, if not subtlety. Li plays each stage in Huo's development a bit too broadly. However, by the end of the film, he's grown comfortably into the role. This is a man who's been through a lot, and Li inhabits him with appropriate and compelling presence.

Still, Li's performance is disjointed, which may be a fault of the film more than the actor. Fearless is a serious biopic, but it seems to be missing more than a few sequences (the film was cut down from over two hours to its current 106-minute running time). The first hour is entertaining and fascinating, as we're introduced to Huo Yuanjia and we witness his rise in the martial arts world, complete with plenty of exhilarating fight sequences. The sequences are marred by occasionally obvious CGI, but choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping serves them up with appropriate doses of grace and brutality. After Huo's downfall, however, things get a bit less developed. His path from fallen man to rebuilt hero seems far too simple, and his village interlude seems to contain a couple of gaps. He finds some peace and humility with Moon and her grandmother, but his eventual decision to return to martial arts competition doesn't seem to arise from anything other than a narrative need. Even less developed is Moon; she's played attractively by Betty Sun, but her dialogue consists of one wise saying after the next. Ultimately, she still feels more like a plot device than an actual person.

The screenplay doesn't limit its clichés to Moon; the final half of the film is structured in a rushed and perfunctory manner. Time is made for the pivotal fight sequences, such as the one between Huo Yuanjia and hulking boxer O'Brien (Nathan Jones), who offers to take on all "Sick Men of Asia" in the ring. However, some details are given almost no focus, such as Huo's founding of the Jingwu Sports Federation, which happens nearly overnight. In no time at all, Huo is back on top of the martial arts world, with many devoted followers and fame extending across Asia. His mucho-hyped battle with Japanese fighter Tanaka (Shido Nakamura) is also a bit mystifying, as Tanaka barely qualifies as a character worthy of such focus. He seems to be a kindred spirit who shares Huo's sportsmanship and honor, but the moments seem more scripted than earned. The two share a conversation over tea where nearly all the film's themes get wrapped up in a neat verbal bow - which is great for audiences who weren't paying attention. For those who were paying attention, the moments seem to come off as obvious platitudes.

But the platitudes work. Despite the connect-the-dots screenplay, Fearless features potent themes of honor and sportsmanship, and Huo Yuanjia's discovery of the true beauty and power of his father's martial arts can be very compelling. Likewise, witnessing Huo Yuanjia defend the pride of the Chinese people is rousing stuff, and the accompanying fight sequences are vastly entertaining. Director Ronny Yu gives the subject matter a refreshingly reverential treatment, and almost seems to be angling for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon territory with the film's classy production values, and predominantly western pacing and storytelling. Fearless still falls a few notches short of that lofty goal as the film takes too many shortcuts, but this is classy, satisfying entertainment that marks a fitting end to Jet Li's screen fighting career - if this really is his final martial arts picture. But even if it isn't, Fearless should be remembered as one of Li's finest accomplishments. (Kozo 2006)

 
Notes: • The Jingwu Sports Federation is more popularly known as the school the righteous Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) belonged to in the classic Fist of Fury. Jet Li also took a stab at playing Chen Zhen in 1994's Fist of Legend.
• Michelle Yeoh participated in a small role in Fearless, but was cut to ease the film's running time from over two hours down to a more audience-friendly 106 minutes. The 141 minute director's cut restores Yeoh to the film, but she doesn't do anything except talk behind a podium.
• The initial Hong Kong DVD release of Fearless was unsubtitled in English, presumably to help out the North American release by Rogue Pictures, which occurred in August 2006. The eventual North American DVD release arrived in November 2006.
• In January 2007, Edko re-released Fearless on Region 3 Hong Kong DVD in a Director's Cut special edition that restored over 30 minutes to the film's running time, resulting in a 141 minute cut of the film never-before-seen in theaters. Thankfully, the DVD now includes English subtitles.
Fearless may be billed as Jet Li's final "martial arts epic", but it's not his last action movie. Li shot a new film called Rogue opposite Transporter guy Jason Stratham. Even more confusingly, Li signed on to co-star in Peter Chan's remake of the Shaw Brothers classic Blood Brothers, co-starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, and directed by Peter Chan. If there isn't martial arts in that film then everybody, from the investors on down to the audience, will probably be screaming bloody murder.
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Director's Cut Version
Edko Films
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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