Alleged to be Jet Li's final kung-fu film, Jet Li's Fearless is an ass-kicking way to go out. A period piece set at the turn of the 20th century, Fearless is an unpretentious return to straight-ahead fight pictures. Though it bares some surface style in common with the art-house wuxia that has been getting imported to the U.S. in the last couple of years (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and onwards), this isn't another high-flying superhero martial arts movie. Fearless is about the art of the battle and the true pursuit of a fighting discipline, while also being a hell of a lot of fun.
Based on a true story, Fearless follows Huo Yuanjia (Li), the head of a martial arts school who would become a national hero in China. As a child, he was in awe of his father, the previous head of the school, but not very disciplined when it came to studying. After his father is defeated by a rival, Huo himself suffers a beating from the son of the man who bested his dad. Not liking the feeling of losing, he swore on that day to never get taken in a sparring match ever again.
Cut ahead several years and Huo has grown up and taken over the family business, and fight after fight, he steps over his opponents on his way to being the champion of his region. He gets too cocky, though, and in a dishonorable battle with his final opponent, things go too far and tragic consequences are visited down on him. Unable to cope with what he has done, he retreats to the rural countryside. There, he is nursed back to health by a blind girl, learning the humility of hard work and the joys of a quiet life.
When Huo returns to the city to make amends for his past misdeeds, he discovers China is in disarray, having been invaded by Western powers that are trying to subjugate the Chinese people, who have earned the nickname "the Sick Men of Asia." Huo defeats the great powerhouse of the West, Hercules O'Brien (Nathan Jones, a competitive bodybuilder also featured in The Protector), and the Foreign Chamber of Commerce--who represent Germany, England, Spain, and Japan--begins to fear their grip on the country is slackening. They set up a four-part match between Huo and a representative from each nation, truly putting Huo's skills on the line.
Sure, the basic plot structure of Fearless is nothing we haven't seen before. Cocky fighter suffers an ignoble defeat, retreats to a simple existence, learns humility, and then returns to take on his greatest challenge. Countless action movies have used the same basic principle, and the fact of the matter is, it's because it still works. I had a great time watching Fearless, and it didn't matter to me how original the script might be. Directed by Ronny Yu (Freddy vs. Jason) and choreographed by Li and his longtime collaborate Woo-ping Yuen (The Banquet, Unleashed, etc.), the movie felt like it had more fighting than story anyway, and if this is the last time we're going to see Jet Li getting into scraps, then what more could we ask for?
Outside of a particularly brutal battle through a multi-leveled restaurant, the filmmakers keep the settings simple. The rest of the fights all take place within open rings, including one that is several stories off the ground. This means the focus isn't on a lot of wire work or leaping through the air, but largely one-on-one physical encounters between two fighters. Combining creative editing and the occasional CG effect with the best in physical agility, the sparring sequences are really exciting and a marvel to observe. At forty-three, Jet Li proves once and for all why his name is above the title. Watching him is a pure adrenaline rush.
This DVD of Jet Li's Fearless is being sold as the unrated version, though the disc gives you the choice between this cut or the "original" theatrical version. Not having seen the movie before this viewing, I looked up what the difference might be, and from what I found, it's restoring the movie to its original Chinese cut. It's essentially the same running time, but what was shown in U.S. movie theatres had some of the blood and bone-breaking toned down. This surprised me, because there weren't any moments in the movie when I recoiled from the gore. Yes, it's violent, and the fighters do some grisly damage to one another, but I didn't find any of it to be gratuitous. The filmmakers placed more importance on the prowess of the performers than they did on going for shocks.
Which just reinforces my main point: Jet Li's Fearless is a lot of fun. It's a solid action movie that revels in being thrilling while giving the maximum attention to craft. It doesn't break any new ground story-wise, but it doesn't insult your intelligence either, a combination that makes for pure, worry-free enjoyment.
Jet Li's Fearless was put on DVD in anamorphic widescreen at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The picture looks crisp, with vivid colors and nice depth.
Both the original Mandarin language track and the English dub are mixed in 5.1. Everything sounded really good, with a lot of power in the sound effects and music. I did notice, however, that at four or five separate times in the Mandarin track, the sound dropped out for about a second, like a quick pause.
There are English, Spanish, and French subtitles. I didn't have any real problems with the English subtitles outside of a few typos, though I didn't see the need to translate the occasional line that is spoken in English.
In addition to the choice between the unrated and the U.S. theatrical version, the DVD for Fearless has a six-and-a-half-minute deleted scene from Huo's time in the countryside. In it, he takes on the punishment of a young boy to spare the child the pain, and as a result, learns how to fight with mercy. It is subtitled, but it's done in a closed-captioning style, meaning some of the sound effects are translated in addition to the dialogue.
The sixteen-minute "A Fearless Journey" is about Jet Li's desire to retire, including the road that got him to this point and the intention of the movie, why Li chose to return the movie to the basics of action sequences. This feature is in English and has interviews with Jet Li, Ronny Yu, Woo-Ping, and some of Li's Western opponents from the movie.
Fearless comes in a standard DVD case, but it also has a cardboard sleeve.
Highly Recommended. Jet Li's Fearless doesn't pull any punches in the entertainment department. If you're after a well-done movie with lots of exciting action sequences and displays of physical agility, then look no further. Fearless makes no pretense at being great cinema, but not everything needs to be. Sometimes I just want to see a guy get kicked in the face, and in this case, no foot aims higher than Jet Li's.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.