Fearless (2006)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/22/06 00:27:43

"Jet Li Leaves The Martial Arts Stage On A High Note"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Fearless” is being promoted as the final martial-arts extravaganza from Asian superstar Jet Li and if that turns out to be true (and I somehow suspect otherwise), he has thankfully chosen to go out on a classy note (which is more than one can say about Jackie Chan’s recent efforts).

A large-scale historical epic along the lines of such previous efforts as “Fist of Legend,” “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Hero”), Li stars as real-life martial-arts master Huo Yuan Jia and the film chronicles his life story. A headstrong young man, the son of a master himself, Huo only desires to be known as the top fighter in his hometown. He quickly achieves this goal and just as quickly lets his success go to his head as he surrounds himself with an army of flunkies while ignoring his family and loyal friends. Eventually, his ego grows too big and allows what began as a simple misunderstanding to balloon into an epic tragedy that robs him of everything he holds dear.

Huo flees to the country and, after being befriended by a sweet blind girl and her wise grandmother, he spends years learning that one needs to develop the mind and soul as well as the body in order to achieve happiness. He returns to Shanghai to open a school dedicated to these principles, only to discover that intruders from the west and Japan are moving in and dubbing the Chinese “the sick men of Asia.” This, to no ones surprise, leads to a public extravaganza in which Huo takes on the four best westerns and Japanese fighters in order to defend the honor of his people.<

Although the ads for the film unsurprisingly highlight the fight footage (expertly choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping), “Fearless” is primarily dedicated to charting Huo’s spiritual growth than in how he kicks people. Unfortunately, the American distributors have chosen to chop approximately 30 minutes of footage for this version and, as a result, his transformation seems a little too abrupt to be believed. (Presumably this footage will be reinstated for the DVD.) That isn’t to say that the action scenes aren’t impressive–the central restaurant battle that precedes his exile is as brutally exciting as anything that Li has done–but those expecting director Ronny Yu to give the material the weirdo edge he brought to such films as “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy Vs. Jason” may find it surprisingly staid. Instead, he approaches the story in a quiet and respectful manner that stresses the emotional strength and weakness of its characters over the physical.<

It also contains an impressive central performance by Jet Li in a role that has uncanny parallels with his own career. Once hailed primarily for the sheer savagery of his fight scenes (if Jackie Chan was compared to the likes of Buster Keaton, Li was always pure Charles Bronson in the way that he looked as if he truly enjoyed destroying someone with his fists), the last few years have seen him tackling films that have allowed him to expand his range to portray people who can do other things than hit people (such as his underrated work in “Unleashed”) and his work here is easily the best acting that he has ever done on film.

Fans of mindless carnage may come away by the relative lack of violent action (though what there is of it is pretty spectacular) but most others will no doubt come away impressed with what may well be the best philosophical kung-fu film of 2006.

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