Fearless (2006)

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 10/05/06 15:56:14

"Has it only been eight years since Lethal Weapon 4?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Jet Li’s Fearless” is a variation on a type of movie that was once as common as the sports underdog picture is now. It’s the one, frequently starring James Cagney, about the overly-assertive, cocky wise guy who thinks he’s better at some particular thing than anyone else.

His attitude drives the people who are close to him nuts, but he only changes after trying to cut corners and his best pal gets killed. If it’s a war movie, the best pal is that lovable hick from the South. Then our hero redeems himself, often at the cost of his own life. Cue the inspirational music and roll credits.

But you know what? The good old stuff still works if you have a sense of historical perspective and you’re willing to give it a fair shake.

Jet Li, for my money the best actor in our time to emerge from the martial arts film tradition, stars as Huo Yuanjia, a practitioner of Wushu. The film’s underlying theme is that an honorable defeat is preferable to a dishonorable victory. That may be a little hard to swallow in America, especially at the beginning of football season—winning isn’t the best thing; it’s the only thing—but maybe it’s time to let Buddha sit at the American dinner table with the rest of the guys.

Huo, from childhood, has wanted nothing more than to be the fighting champion of his province in China, a goal he achieves as a young man. Disciples—we’d call them students—rush to him for training. His only equal is Master Chin and, due to a misunderstanding brought about by Huo’s drunken students, the two rivals get into a brilliantly choreographed battle royal in a teahouse. Yuen Wo Ping (“Unleashed,” “Kill Bill,” The Matrix Trilogy) staged the fights with a fluidity that makes most contemporary movie dance sequences look like they’re performed by box turtles.

Death and revenge result from the battle and Huo abandons his home to take on the life of a vagabond, winding up in a small village where he is adopted by an old woman and her blind granddaughter Moon (Betty Sun).

Several years later, Huo takes a sentimental journey back to the city of his triumphs and tragedy and sees how westernized, i.e., degenerate, it has become. The film’s action takes place during the first decade of the 20th Century, a time during which China was overrun with corrupt Imperialists and canting missionaries, and was known as “the sick man of Europe.”

The narrative, based on a true story, is built around Huo’s efforts to unite the Chinese people for a contest of martial arts skills pitting him against four champions from occupying powers. This starts and ends the film with extraordinary action scenes.

The picture is billed as Jet Li’s farewell to martial arts moviemaking—although not to action films—and director Ronny Yu serves him well. The movie is exciting, stunning to look at, and emotionally rich. It’s in Mandarin with English subtitles, but don’t let that run you off. It’s worth doing a little reading for.

The fights are bloody and real. The film has its share of laughs, but this is no Jackie Chan wannabe action comedy.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.