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Jet Li's Fearless: Director's Cut
Universal // Unrated // July 8, 2008
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Before Jet Li's Fearless was released theatrically in the United States, rumblings came from overseas about how incredible it was both as a martial arts action piece and as epic revolving around the historical essence of Chinese kung fu. Though I've never been a huge fan of Jet Li's other work, considering a lot of his canon as a string of mildly enjoyable diversions, the strength I found in both his gritty film Unleashed and Zhang Yimou's unparalleled Hero was enough to sell me on a trip to the theater to witness his "Final Martial Arts Epic". It disappointed me that Fearless meshed into that chunk of entertaining movies that exist for fight choreography alone, as the dramatic portions felt oddly out of place. Was it inspirational? Only in short breaths, as it opts to be more of a showcase for its rather enthralling throw-downs.
After indulging the theatrical cut's paltry 105-minute runtime and its claims of being an epic-scaled film, it was time to settle into the nearly two-and-a-half hour reconstruction of Fearless and witness Jet Li's self-proclaimed final martial arts performance ... you know, Forbidden Kingdom aside. Once Ronny Yu's director's vision came to a close, I see why the drama felt so uncomfortable in its own skin -- it truly was out of place in its claustrophobic initial cut. It's amazing what editing work can do to a film, as the trimming and repositioning of material from Yu's film transformed a strong, thoughtfully expansive martial arts epic downwards into the blunt, half-heartless exercise in pure adrenaline shown in our theaters. Thankfully, with the vitality of home entertainment, its true vision can be shared without the concern for marketing suits or construed audience interpretation. The result is nothing short of astonishing, as Ronny Yu's reformulated historical martial arts portrait can now claim a seat as one of the significant greats of its genre.
Fearless tells a fictionalized rendition of the life of Hou Yuanjia, master martial arts teacher and former wushu champion of China. It follows his rise and fall as an undefeated fighter, through his darker moments as he falls from his throne to his growth as a self-ostracized vagabond who learns the ways of the land via a faraway farming village. He builds relationships along the way that help shape him as an individual, but mainly Fearless' focus resides in Huo Yuanjia's intrinsic growth as he approaches a level of Zen that allows him to teach his capabilities to other individuals. It's a straightforward plot arc, rooted in the "epiphany" style of rejuvenation in a once hardened hero; however, Fearless makes its plot feel significant by illustrating the poignancy of death, more importantly the taking of life, and how conquering both destructive desires and a thirst for violence can bring one closer to their true self.
Ronny Yu's film isn't a straightforward inspirational drama, by any means, but certainly you can guess that from the previews and the sheer presence of Jet Li himself. The director responsible for the Bride With White Hair series enlisted the biggest fight choreographer in both crossover and foreign martial arts styles, Yuen Wo-Ping, to build a grand level of fast-paced, visceral combat for Fearless that, of course, needed to be firmly grounded in reality and hard-hitting in equal measure. More so with the shorter cut that unnaturally spotlights these sequences, Yuen Wo-Ping's work here really stands out as a substantial achievement in brutal dance-like choreography. His style for Fearless feels like a grand infusion between his poetic work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the gritty animosity he invokes into both Unleashed and The Matrix films. Ronny Yu makes the film strong, while Yuen Wo-Ping makes it equally, if not far more, exciting.
Taking both Ronny Yu's direction and Yuen Wo-Ping's martial art craftsmanship into consideration, Jet Li's final "epic" performance gives Fearless the ample amount of charismatic gusto that it needs for the lead character to breathe and develop. His happy-go-lucky charm as a cocky young fighter still doesn't sell me terribly well, though it's still an enjoyably bubbly persona. Once he confronts the true conflict in his younger years, being a domineering fighter equal to his talents, Jet Li shifts from an arrogance that's almost too giddy to believe to a brooding, scarred persona that stays latched with him throughout the rest of the picture. Huo Yuanjia soaks into himself to learn the true nature of his craft, and Jet Li carries that character with stoic breadth along the rest of his years.
Theatrical / Unrated vs. Director's Cut:
Fearless didn't initially have such an expansive persona, as it was whittled down to one-hour and forty-minutes of taut combat with little to no room for dramatic growth. As seen through Ronny Yu's director's cut, this wasn't originally the idea. He has gone back in and crafted his original vision, one that differs both in scope and in overall length of the film -- extending it around thirty-six to thirty-seven (36-37) minutes to a runtime right at one-hundred and forty-one (141) minutes. Oftentimes, unrated cuts and director's cuts add and subtract elements that provide little to no tangible reasoning behind the new effort. Only recently with the Kingdom of Heaven and Troy alterations have we seen quality director's visions outside of Ridley Scott's famous initial Blade Runner recut. Here, Fearless achieves much of the same success, but not so much in the same ways.
One thing that might not be directly noticeable without focused scrutiny between the two cuts is the roster of minor extensions spliced in all throughout the picture. We're not talking about minute-long tack-ons, either; there's many, many instances where seconds, even close to one second, of material was cut just to tighten up Fearless for its theatrical run. Measurements weren't taken, but I'd be almost willing to bet that roughly 20% of the additional runtime is from these small bits. Now, we're also working with more typical extensions, such as an extended scene with Huo Yuanjia watching his father practice at the beginning of the film. These edits, which are quite numerous across the film, were made to streamline the pacing of Fearless when it actually strangulated its potential expansiveness. Adding these little bits back in relaxes the editing much more, making for a smoother and more enjoyable experience.
But what makes the Fearless: Director's Cut an evident triumph comes in the additional character development not present in its "thinner" version. Let's get this out of the way: very little visceral martial arts material is added to the cut. There's a battle where Huo Yuanjia takes on a bunch of different challengers at once that has some footage tacked on to infuse a bit more brutality into the mix, including a splatter of blood or two, but that's about it. Instead, Yu concentrates on expanding the dramatic side of Fearless, making the crammed-together fight choreography more spread out and cohesive. He takes the opportunity to beef up Huo Yuanjia's character development as a child and as his developmental self at the faraway farm, giving us more reason to place faith in his strife.
We learn of an ancient martial arts book that Huo and his childhood friend utilize at a young age, as well as some rather touchy usage of a "death waiver" early on. Furthermore, we actually get some face time with Huo Yuanjia as he apathetically trains his disciples, something neglected and incoherent in the first film. This scene also helps to illustrate his lack of care for communicating the message of intrinsic growth with the art, as well as helping another subsequent scene involving the mention of his training techniques make more sense. In addition, we witness more of the disconnection between Huo Yuanjia and his family, further enhancing the trauma that follows near the plateau of his career as a fighter.
The paramount footage, and by far my most favored addition to this cut, has to be the substance attached onto Huo Yuanjia's time at the farming community. Everything I've discussed, from minor bits stitched into the narrative to the beefing up of the material, applies to this longer stretch. Concentration falls around the community on a dying ox named Yellow, one that becomes analogous to Huo Yuanjia's call to duty as a man destined for "service". In this extra material, we also witness an intriguing scene involving Huo Yuanjia taking a beating as punishment, followed shortly by a straight defensive stretch from Jet Li that really helps to develop the character's understanding of wushu / kung-fu's true defensive nature.
Director Yu has also reorganized much of the pre-existent theatrical cut's material in a more cohesive manner around these new additions. If you saw the original cut, which isn't even close to comparable if you're walking into this director's edition as a first exposure, then you might remember the film opening with black-and-white cannons exploding with some running dialogue about the country during wartime. Much like the rest of the film, the editing concentrates more on Huo Yuanjia's character as it focuses on his dirty self curled up on a boat right from the beginning credits, leaving the gunfire as an added tidbit much later on in the film as a transitory image. More importantly, the battle sequence that bookshelved the theatrical cut has now been re-mashed together and featured as a full climax near the end. In general, each of these shifts make much more tonal and situational sense, rectifying the original cut's mediocre encapsulation devices that gave the film its empty closure.
Impressions on the Director's Cut:
Fearless's theatrical cut was a mediocre film with a slew of engrossing martial arts action, but seemed rather heartless in my eyes. The essence of its focal character, a man who wished to develop internally and communicate his art, seemed poorly developed and inept as a core plot point. Here, in Ronny Yu's preferred edition, you can really dig into Huo Yuanjia's transformation as a diplomatic martial arts genius while also soaking in some incredible battle choreography. It actually feels like an epic-scaled film, leaving plenty of room for emotional attachment to many characters instead of allowing barely enough character development to support the sizable amount of action.
Fret not; making Fearless a longer film without touching much of the action-based portions doesn't detract from its levels of exhilaration in the slightest. Doing so actually made Ronny Yu's film into one of the stronger martial arts costume dramas I've seen as it carries breadth, action, and significance well on its lengthy shoulders. The only portion that seemed somewhat tacked on was the introductory inclusion of Michelle Yeah's modern day Olympics presentation, even though it is a heartfelt addition to the story's inherent goals. Fearless wasn't a film favored particularly high after my viewing in the theater, one I never really had much desire to watch again; this new cut, infusing both drama and explosive action into a strong narrative, is a martial arts piece well worth revisiting.
Universal presents Fearless in a double-disc keepcase presentation with attractive glossy coverart embossed with a golden sheen. Menu design is exactly the same from the older edition, only featuring the tag "Director's Cut" at the top of the template. No promotional inserts or chapter listings are available, aside from a voucher to see Jet Li's most recent film: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Disc One houses the full Director's Cut of the film, while Disc Two is a carbon copy of the Unrated Disc from 2005, featuring both the Unrated and Theatrical cuts in a fine transfer. Hence, you're getting three (!) cuts of Fearless in one $20 package. Not too shabby.
NOTE: Universal's DVD printing press had a bit of a snafu with its first run of Fearless: Director's Cut. At the start, both Disc One and Disc Two were both the Unrated and Theatrical Cut DVDs printed on each disc -- therefore, no Director's Cut was available. Hence the lack of timeliness of this review, which is a write-up on a corrected copy from Universal. After some scrutiny between the two editions, it's practically impossible to tell correct pressings from the bunked ones. A simple contact to Universal, though, should render you a replacement disc.
Jet Li's Fearless: The Director's Cut looks phenomenal in every way, shape, form and fashion in Universal's new set, especially considering that its anamorphic image looks closer to the advertised 2.40:1 framing instead of the 2.35:1 or so negative from the theatrical / unrated. Since there isn't a high-definition version of this cut released day-and-date with this DVD, this had to measure up well against the pre-existent editions -- which includes an HD-DVD flipper disc. Altogether, it stands alongside these other releases with incredible strength. When comparing equivalent scenes to that in the 2005 edition of Fearless, this new Director's Cut exhibits a slew of differences over its predecessor:
Hint: Glance at Jet Li's robe and skin tone, the pillars, and the far-off drummers.
Most noticeable is the level of warmth from the new Director's Cut transfer. Color tonality is much more natural and stable this time around, steering away from the icy feel that the original disc exhibited. Detail is greatly improved as well, as many of the minute features like wood grain and stone texture leap from the print. Black levels are handled with inky detail, but still latch firmly onto each detail within its darkness. This can clearly be seen in Huo Yuanjia's battle within a dimly lit restaurant's many contours late at night. Edge enhancement and ghosting are few and far between, practically unnoticeable during normal viewing proximities. It's a phenomenal digital transfer that easily tops the list of the better ones I've seen all year. It'll be very interesting to see how Universal handles an eventual high-definition release of this great print.
Fearless' Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track packs quite the punch, as well. There are plenty of thuds, slams, punches, wallops, sword clashes ... the works in this track, and each one is handled with graceful aptitude. None of the activity holds an overabundance of rattle or shake, which lends it a very natural feel. Elemental tidbits, like rushing water, wind blowing across the fields, and crackling stone and wood have such tangibility about them that make them echo with immense fluidity. Separation is top shelf here, stretching back to the rear channels and down to the lower frequencies with immense expansiveness. Little elements like birds chirping and other elemental points echo into the rear for great surround points. Most of all, the verbal range and musical clarity is just flat-out awesome. Within the lower-bitrate of Dolby standards, I was wholly impressed with its aural strength. Subtitles are available in optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish dialogue to match the sole Mandarin 5.1 track.
Just scrape your memory of the previous release's subtitles completely, as this new DVD has revamped probably around 95% of the dialogue to a very sound degree. Grammatically and contextually, Fearless' new subtitle arrangement, in finite and simple words, makes much more sense. One thing I noticed in the old release was some very odd word usage and, at times, misrepresentation of lines that even a person who doesn't speak Mandarin could see as ridiculous. Though I don't know the language personally and cannot attest to its full translation, every choice made feels much more wholesome and representative of the true nature behind the lines of dialogue.
Remember the extras available on the older 2005 edition -- meaning the Deleted Scene and the Fearless Journey piece, the 15-minute rather typical marketing fluff featurette on Jet Li? Good, because that's sadly all we're working with once again on this Director's Cut of Fearless. Since there's nothing new supplement wise on the new disc, these extras are only made available because they're presented exactly as before on the copied Disc 2. Bummer.
This Director's Cut of Jet Li's Fearless achieves its clearly defined goal of transforming a mediocre historical kung-fu film into a finely crafted and engrossing martial arts epic. Whether you're referring to the minor edits seamlessly re-integrated into the picture or the new scenes targeted at expanding the picture's scope and internal objectives, this polished and expansive reformulation succeeds in spades at offering a more substantial and enjoyably smooth film. Yu's vision of Fearless is well worth the extra time it takes to soak in its lengthier cut. It's a shame that more supplements revolving around crafting the new vision weren't offered in the first disc; that said, considering the low price tag and the fantastic quality of Jet Li's Fearless: Director's Cut in both film regards and technical standards, this DVD is a Highly Recommended purchase for fans of the genre and even for those who weren't a fan of its theatrical concoction.