If, as Jet Li insists, Fearless is his last martial arts film, he can at least know that he's going out with a bang. Three bangs, actually, as Fearless comes to us in three versions, the original theatrical cut, an unrated cut, and a director's cut. Each of these slightly skews the basic biographical elements of Li's character, the real wushu master of the early 20th century Huo Yuanjia. Though this new Blu-ray release never explicitly states it on the packaging, it does indeed feature all three versions, which appeared a few months ago in a two disc DVD release (one which through a production error actually contained two copies of the same disc, resulting in a little brouhaha for Universal, which did the right thing and offered free replacements).
It's a little ironic to have the Director's Cut, the longest and most inclusive of the three versions included here, start out with a modern-day framing device which has Michelle Yeoh supposedly presenting facts about wushu to an Olympic Committee considering making the sport an Olympic event. The irony comes from Yeoh's insistence that wushu actually means "avoid conflict." While that may indeed ultimately become the theme of Fearless, conflict avoidance is certainly not the overriding reason anyone comes to a Jet Li movie, and for about two-thirds of Fearless, there isn't much avoidance to speak of, as Li engages in one thrilling martial arts scene after another, all of them staged with incredible panache by director Ronny Yu and fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping. In fact, when Yuanjia finally has his philosophical change of heart about his battle abilities, it doesn't in fact mean that he stops beating the crap out of people, he's just a bit less arrogant about it all.
Fearless offers an interesting contrast in levels of success based on its various versions. While there isn't a whale of a lot of difference between the theatrical and unrated versions, the difference is much more substantial between those two and the Director's Cut. The theatrical and unrated versions seem oddly truncated and uninvolving, no wonder since so much material was stripped from them in order to shorten their running times. Part of the impressiveness of Fearless, at least in its Director's Cut, is its ambition--this is a film that Yu obviously wanted to be more than "just another martial arts feature." It was obviously crafted not only as Li's kung fu elegy, but also as a philosophical treatise on what this sort of up close and personal, hand to hand combat should be about. That's largely missing from the shorter versions--what you get is a handful of knockout (literally) fight sequences livening up an otherwise largely incomprehensible mishmash of pseudo-biographical material.
This repurposed and restored Director's Cut of Fearless may not be the be-all end-all that its creators may have hoped, but it reinfuses the work with a personal touch and fine character moments that actually help give the fight sequences even more figurative punch, while finally living up to its vaunted "epic" aspirations. Yuanjia undergoes a pretty traditional character arc here, from arrogant hero, to tragically distraught loner, back to the heights again with a bittersweet finale. What the Director's Cut restores to Fearless is both a better sense of the changes China was going through in these tumultuous times, changes that mirror perfectly the metamorphoses that Yuanji himself undergoes, as well as giving more time for the character of Yuanji himself to be explored, especially in a glorious and langorous midsection when the hero exiles himself and learns farming techniques in a still largely feudal-esque village.
Li shows surprising range in this film, perhaps auguring well for a career beyond wire work. Tender scenes between Yuanji and his young daughter are contrasted with more emotionally violent fare (not to mention the fight sequences, of course), where Yuanji sees his world crumble about him and becomes a Chinese zombie for all intents and purposes. Yu creates a totally believable world and era through which Yuanji travels--from rustic village to growing urbanization as various foreign powers seeks to mine China for their own not exactly noble purposes. Fearless offers one of the most impressive physical productions you're apt to see in a martial arts epic, beautifully balanced against some truly stunning natural vistas that breathe air and light wonderfully well into the proceedings.
Of course what any Jet Li film ultimately boils down to is its fight scenes, and Fearless delivers the goods over and over again with one stupendous sequence after another. The U.S. theatrical version starts with what in the Director's Cut is the climax, an unbelievable display of various techniques as Yuanji is set against experts from around Europe and Japan, a frankly stupid decision that may start the theatrical version out with jaw-dropping fight effects, but which makes some of the other sequences, as impressive as they are, seem somewhat anticlimactic. The Director's Cut builds these sequences almost architecturally, from some high dais early fights, to a more involved sequence between Yuanji and another wushu master that virtually destroys a restaurant, finally building to the showdown between Yuanji and four masters in such arts as boxing and swordplay. It's visually virtuosic and provides Jet Li with some of his finest moments.
Fearless manages to retain a surprisingly poetic soul beneath the bombast, especially in the Director's Cut. The heartfelt finale offers a beautiful slow motion display of Li's almost balletic fight movements while attempting to mine the emotional depths (without hopefully spoiling anything, I think it might have been more effective for Yuanji to have seen two additional "lost" characters in addition to the one he does see in his vision). It's to Yu's credit that he was able to finally realize his own authentic vision for what Fearless should have always been. Though Li may or may not be not exactly moving on from martial arts films (Forbidden Kingdom anyone?), Fearless stands as one of the most involving and unique personal stories wrapped around a martial arts premise in which Li has ever been involved.
The theatrical cut of Fearless was one of the first HD-DVD releases, but this Blu-ray ups the ante (at least aurally), while providing a solidly impressive 1080p VC-1 transfer in a 2.40:1 OAR. Fearless is one beautiful looking film, with absolutely top-notch detail and a beautiful amber quality in a lot of the interior scenes. Location footage is nothing less than jaw-dropping, with depth of field and detail that bring the Chinese countryside into your living room. Colors and contrast (and a lot of Fearless is purposely on the dark, candlelit side) is largely flawless. There were one or two extremely brief moments of aliasing and/or moire issues on tight-knit geometrical paterns like checked vests and the like, and that is the only reason this doesn't get a 5 star rating.
Fearless' three versions offer an astounding lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin Chinese mix that is a thudding, smashing and crashing masterpiece. Separation and directionality are completely involving and you might find yourself literally ducking as fist noises and swordplay quickly move from channel to channel. LFE (in fact the entire bass range) is especially impressive on all the mixes. This is a very complex sound mix, delivered with pristine clarity. The theatrical and unrated versions also offer a robust if slightly less impressive English and French DTS 5.1 surround mixes. English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.
The only extra is an OK featurette called "A Fearless Journey," offering interviews with Li and Yu, as well as some background information. The deleted scene that was offered on the 2 DVD set (which is included in the Director's Cut) is not offered here as an extra.
Fearless may not have quite achieved its ambitions of being the Citizen Kane of martial arts films, but it is an unusually involving and emotionally rich exploration of what wushu means to Asian culture. Li is superb in both his acting and fight sequences, and the entire film has the epic scope and intimate drama that make it completely compelling, at least in its Director's Cut version. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet