In turn of the century China, young Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) desires to become his land's most famous fighter, much to the disapproval of his father. Training himself to become a lethal weapon, Yuanjia soon achieves his goal, and proceeds to decimate his competition. Consumed by the thrill of victory and the lust of fame, Yuanjia's egotistical stance brings him to the dark places of his soul. When tragedy leaves him spiritually shattered, Yuanjia begins a long journey to self-discovery, relearning the ethics of martial arts along the way, and preparing for a fight competition in Shanghai where he can showcase his newfound appreciation of sportsmanship and respect.
With "Fearless," Jet Li bids a fond farewell to the martial arts genre that made him a superstar. Looking to exit the business of bashing heads on a graceful note, Li selected this delicate true story to best display his philosophies on fighting and honor.
Li and director Ronny Yu are both returning to their homeland after years toiling away in Hollywood to mixed results. "Fearless" is a labor of love piece that uses storytelling methods coasting on operatic heights, allowing the talent to pass along their profound messages on the futile nature of violence to even the most dense of audience members. Yu is traditionally a fairly showboat director, but here he slows his visual tempo and finds a perfect sync with Yuanjia's ideas and passions. "Fearless" is an elegant film, and gets away with a noticeable lack of subtlety because Yu and Li commit entirely to the bigger picture of blunt communication.
If "Fearless" keeps Yu contained, the material allows Li to free himself up as an actor after of years of stoic, tough guy roles. Building off his vulnerable work in "Unleashed," Li moves even closer to a rounded, fully realized performance. This is the most deeply shaded work I've seen from Li yet, and I was impressed by the way the actor could embrace the largeness of the screenwriting without submitting to melodrama. Yuanjia's life covers some extraordinary twists and turns, and Li registers each emotion with elegance, and seems lit from within when the character starts on his pathway to enlightenment.
Just because "Fearless" is a movie about the insanity of revenge doesn't mean Yu and Li haven't failed to provide the requisite ass kickery to appease fans. Bringing on legendary choreographer Yuen Wo Ping as an architect for Yuanjia's battles, "Fearless" charges hard at the camera with its whirlwind menagerie of wire-assisted competition combat. At the center of the hurricane is Li, tossing around contestants with ease while shuffling through a laundry list of martial art styles.
There's little argument from me that "Fearless" is thrilling, but in the end I was more taken with Yuanjia's personal journey from god to servant. In this day and age when the world grows more unstable by the second, Li's efforts here to encourage reflection on the ideas of inner peace and the uselessness of violence are resoundingly welcome.
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