I never paid much attention to Jet Li, outside of the Once Upon A Time In China series. His films always seemed like something of a one-trick pony to me, like Jackie Chan's movies but with more style. However, seeing the ads for Fearless had me intrigued. It was shot in Mandarin, and looked to be a throwback to the Once Upon A Time In China films I still watch and enjoy to this day. To top it all off, Li had announced that this was going to be his last wushu (a.k.a. martial arts) film of his career, further piquing my interest. And let me say, I'm pleased as punch that I got it, because it's an understatement to say that Fearless is the best movie of Jet Li's entire career.
Li stars as Huo Yuanjia, a world famous martial artist at the turn of the 20th century. The film opens with Yuanjia facing off against four other master fighters from other countries in a tournament. He bests three of them, but before he can engage the final contestant, the film jumps back to his childhood. His father was a master of wushu. He had developed his own style of fighting and taught it to his students. Huo watches his father practice for hours, but his father refuses to teach him the fighting arts, due to Huo's asthma. Nonetheless, Huo practices in secret. One day, Huo hears that his father will be facing off against a master of a different wushu style. Huo sneaks off to see the match. His father is clearly the superior fighter, but as he's about to land the last blow, he catches sight of his son and refuses to finish, letting the other master defeat him.
The film jumps again to when Huo is a young man, in his early 20's. His father has passed on, making him the head of his clan and master of the household. He has a daughter, Jade, although his wife is nowhere to be seen (presumably dead). After his father's death, Huo began practicing wushu, with the intention of becoming the top martial artist in his province. To prove his skill, he faces off against other fighters in various matches. He wins every single one, which makes him boastful. He also gains a considerable number of students who spend his money instead of learning the ways of wushu. Soon, he's almost broke, and there's only one master left for him to fight. Being a little drunk and far too proud of himself, he forces a fight with the master at an ill-advised time and ends up killing him. The result of this leads him on an unexpected journey, full of ups and downs, where he ends up becoming a voice for all of China.
Fearless is a far more ambitious movie than Jet Li has ever attempted before. Sure, he's had some massive fight movies previously, but this one differs in that it's intensely personal to Li himself. As he says on the accompanying featurette, "The story of Fearless is the story of Jet Li." And while Huo Yuanjia was a real historical figure, it's clear that this role means more to Li than any other role he's played in his life. In fact, he pours his heart and soul into the character, giving him a humanity and range of emotions that Li has never displayed in any of his previous outings.
Of course, the fight sequences are also fantastic, with this film raising the bar almost as high as it can go. A decision was made early on in the production to use wire-fu and CGI as little as possible, giving the fights a visceral punch that most kung-fu pictures lack these days. The film revolves around fighting, and there must be at least a dozen different individual fights in the picture, but each is unique, always keeping the audience on the edge of their seat. And because the fights work at the service of the story, and not the other way around, they have more impact than they would otherwise. I can see why Jet Li would retire from wushu movies after this, as it would be hard to top the fight sequences alone.
But more than that, it would be almost impossible for Li to top the emotional scope of this film. Huo Yuanjia goes through such an incredible progression in his life, that it makes for an almost perfect story, mythic in its sweep. His is a journey that takes him all across China, through financial success and ruin, and through his own soul to find out who he really is. I never thought Jet Li would be capable of making such a powerful, grand, and thoughtful piece. There is a sequence in the film where Yuanjia is working in a small rural village, planting rice seeds. As he works, he notices all the men around him stop and stand up when a strong breeze comes in over the mountains. Yuanjia, eager to finish his work, ignores them and continues planting. As he spends more time in the village, he realizes why the farmers stop to appreciate a nice breeze in the middle of their work, and eventually he too takes the time to enjoy the small things that life can give us, and to use those to be at peace with one's self and others. This is, in essence, the true spirit of Fearless.
The HD DVD:
Fearless is a brand new, 2006 movie, so I expected this HD DVD to look pristine. Imagine my surprise when it actually exceeded my expectations. The detail and clarity on this disc is nothing short of stunning. Small details in wide shots are easily resolved, and the lifelike images on close-ups make you feel like you could reach out and actually touch the actor's faces. Colors pop and glisten, and the entire film has that "wow" factor that people look for when they get an HD DVD or Blu-ray. This disc should be sent out to every authoring house in the world, because it's easily reference material. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say it's the best HD transfer I've ever seen in any medium, period. You simply have to see this disc to believe it.
The sound is also spectacular. In any fight movie, the sound is particularly important in selling the illusion that the participants in the bouts are actually getting hurt, and Fearless pulls that off perfectly. Ribs cracking, bones breaking, blood splattering, swords clanging, it's all there and it's all in your face. The surrounds do an excellent job of enveloping you in the fight, so you almost feel like if you don't duck that punch might just hit you instead of the other fighter. The only reason I'm giving it less than the full five stars is because there's no lossless track, which surely would have given the sound here an even bigger boost. But kudos to Universal for giving us the original Mandarin language track in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1.
The only flaw on this disc are the small number of supplements. What we do get are excellent, however.
There is one deleted scene that is actually a fairly important moment. I'm surprised it was left out of the final cut, especially since the version of the film here is the unrated cut. The scene is either in HD or is a fantastic upconvert.
Speaking of the unrated cut, the theatrical cut of the film is available on the DVD side of this combo disc. Some may not consider this a special feature, but it's worth noting anyway.
The final supplement is a 15-minute featurette entitled "A Fearless Journey," with a good amount of interviews with director Ronny Yu and Jet Li. Li in particular is very verbose about his intentions for the film, and how much the movie means to him. You can really see how he was the guiding force behind the film. While I wish it could have been longer and more in-depth, what we do get is more than just the standard studio fluff.
Fearless is the kind of movie that most actors never even get a chance to make. Emotionally resonant, thoughtful, and meditative, the film combines powerful fight scenes with real human touches to create a truly wonderful farewell to a martial arts star. Praises for the sound and picture on the HD DVD should be sung from the heavens; it's got the best HD transfer I've ever seen. While the special features are few in number, they make up for it with the weight of their substance. If you could only own one HD DVD, just for sound and picture alone, this may very well be the one to get. Highly Recommended
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.