NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is an import from Hong Kong and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. [Recommended Region Free Players] It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Jet Li has stated that Fearless is to be his last wuxia film, but if it has to end, at least he went to some efforts to ensure that it did so with a bang. In the movie Li plays Huo Yuan Jia, a martial arts master and a bit of a Chinese folk hero in his own right, as in real life he started the Jing Wu Sports Federation which would go on to have a huge impact on the day to day living of the Chinese people. His story is one of inspiration and of a man who overcame insurmountable odds to stand up for what he believed in, and while it's obvious that some creative liberties were taken in the events portrayed in this film, it's a positive and completely enjoyable action film regardless.
At the beginning of the film, Huo Yuan Jia is a sickly little kid who wants desperately to learn martial arts from his father, who is quite accomplished in his own right, but his father, being a man of great pride, refuses him because of his ailments. When he gets beaten pretty harshly by another kid, Huo Yuan Jia makes it his mission to learn how to defend himself even if his father won't be the one to teach him. He teaches himself to fight and proves his worth in plenty of hand to hand matches until he's got himself a bit of a reputation but with increasing skill comes an unhealthy pride until a disaster strikes and he sends himself into a self imposed exile where he meets up and lives with an old woman and her blind daughter. Through them he returns to his roots in a sense, living day to day as the common people do, not caring about competitive fighting or martial arts anymore, simply enjoying the solitude that his new life provides for him.
Seven years later, Huo Yuan Jia decides to return to his home town but when he arrives, he finds that it is a very different place than the town he left years ago. The Chinese way of life is in danger of becoming extinct as Western and Japanese influences become more and more commonplace and the Chinese are now looked down upon by the immigrants who have made his land their own. Huo Yuan Jia becomes enraged that this has happened to his people and as a display of his hatred for what has happened he challenges an American solider to a fight and mops the floor with him in no time flat. The political powers vying for outside control of China decide to use Huo Yuan Jia's abilities and his way of inspiring the locals to crush their spirit by setting him up for a fall by way of arranging some tournaments wherein he must fight against four separate fighters, each from outside of China. He agrees, but doesn't realize that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes then just setting up who will fight who and where, and that there are many underlying political motivations behind all of this that he is completely blind to.
So how does it all hold up? First things first, Fearless looks absolutely fantastic. Ronny Yu and his art direction cinematography team have created a gorgeous looking film that, like his earlier movies such as The Bride With White Hair, makes excellent use of colors and lighting giving us a very atmospheric and multi-layered visual experience. There's a lot of detail in the set design and in the general look of the film, and it really looks like was made back in the glory days of Hong Kong cinema.
Li doesn't move as fast here as he did in some of his earlier movies like Fong Sai Yuk or Once Upon A Time In China but the guy has still got it, even if he has toned the over the top acrobatics down just a bit. Some of the physical comedy that Yu throws him into in the film doesn't work so well, he's never been as good at it as, say, Jackie Chan, but other than that, in this movie Jet Li is pretty much 'the man.' He looks as slick as he ever has and his form is fantastic, very fluid, and just amazing to watch sometimes. When the plot really starts to pick up and he becomes less the jovial young man he starts off as and more the bitter, angry warrior that his character grows into, he becomes quite impressive in terms of not only his fighting ability but in his overall screen presence – you wouldn't want to mess with him during the second half of the movie.
The fight choreography in the film, courtesy of the world famous Yuen Wu Ping is fantastic and there's an intensity to the martial arts scenes in this film that we haven't seen in some time. He's worked with Jet Li plenty of times in the past and the results are always exceptional, Fearless is no exception there. Seeing Li's graceful martial arts skills set against four very different techniques in the last half of the film is a lot of fun and it's not only visually impressive but genuinely suspenseful and exciting as well.
The movie is not without it's flaws – the comedy doesn't always work and it might prove difficult for Western audiences to 'get' everything that's going on in the story as it is very much based on Chinese history and folklore (though you can't really fault a Chinese film for appealing to a Chinese audience, can you?). A couple of snippets here and there in the fight scenes look to be sped up which gives the film a few insincere moments during what should be riveting set pieces. But aside from that, Fearless works really well and it delivers the kind of fight scenes that martial arts movie buffs crave. It's a slick film, it's well directed and well paced and Jet Li does do a fine job in the lead once he's given a chance to move into the more serious subject matter.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is really solid. While there are faint traces of edge enhancement and mpeg compression evident in a few spots, they're few and far between. Colors look nice and natural, the reds especially are quite strong but they don't bleed, skin tones look great as well, and there's a very nice, high level of detail present in the background as well as the foreground. Print damage isn't quite non-existent but it is at least relegated to nothing more than a few specks here and there, and although there is a little bit of grain present in a few scenes, it's never out of hand and never unnatural looking. A very solid effort in the visuals department on this release.
There are three audio options on this DVD – a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound an excellent DTS-ES 6.1 Surround Sound in Mandarin, and then a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix in Cantonese. Optional subtitles are available only in traditional and simplified Chinese – there are no English subtitles present on this disc. While the DTS track slightly edges out the Dolby Digital mixes, all three tracks sound great. The film makes very good use of the surround channels, especially during the martial arts sequences and the crowd scenes, and the subwoofer gets a bit of a work out as well. Dialogue is crisp and clear without any muffling or muddiness to the track, and there's really not much to complain about here other than one or two spots where the action just slightly overshadows the dialogue.
The main extra feature on this disc is a making of documentary that runs for just over nine minutes in length. There aren't any English subtitles available for this so the interviews with pretty much all of the main players in the film including Li and Yu were impenetrable but the practice and rehersal footage where we see Li warming up and trying out some of his moves is sure to please martial arts fans.
Rounding out the supplements on this release are two television spots in Chinese, a trailer with burned in English and Chinese subtitles, some cast and crew biographies also all in Chinese, and a still gallery or ten behind the scenes images from the film.
The absence of English subtitles for the main feature make this release geared more towards those who cannot wait for the inevitable Region One release of the film. That being said, if you're okay with the fact that the movie is only in Chinese, Edko has done a fine job on the audio and on the video for this release, even if the extras aren't all that. Fearless is Jet Li at the top of his game and the fight scenes alone make this one recommended, but with the obvious caveat being the subtitles.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.