Genre: Martial Arts Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.
Release Date: September 22nd, 2006 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ronny Yu Actors: Jet Li, Betty Sun, Yong Dong, Nathan Jones, Brandon Rhea, Anthony De Longis, Jean Claude Leuyer
imilar in its epic scope of storytelling to Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” “Fearless” chronicles the historical yet only marginally true-to-life journey of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li), from his reckless youth to his legendary status as a hero to the people of China. It begins with the first three duels of a tournament, initiated by foreign powers to humiliate the country and to destroy Huo’s newly founded Jin Wu Sports Federation. Huo quickly wins the initial fights, but before the final encounter, the film shifts back to his childhood and the events that will eventually lead to his renown as a nationalist and as an opponent of imperialism.
As a child, Huo is headstrong and insistent on learning the ways of wushu to gain power over others. Though his parents and best friend Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong) attempt to enlighten him in the true meanings of honor and courage, Huo blindly chooses to use his fighting abilities to command fear, amass false followers, and become the undefeated “champion of Tianjin.” After dishonorably challenging a rival martial arts master to a duel to the death with tragic results, Huo’s sanity falters and he flees to a far off land populated by humble farmers. There he meets the beautiful, blind girl Moon (Betty Sun), and during his stay, he begins to understand the value of friendship and family. After several years pass, Huo decides to visit his parents’ graves, and upon returning to his hometown, he discovers that it has been overrun by the West and its influences. Determined to regain Chinese pride, Yuanjia creates an academy and agrees to participate in a treacherous Shanghai tournament that, though designed to crush his country’s failing spirit, can’t stop the verve of the mighty combatant.
Unlike the typecast, emotionless heroes of Jet Li’s Hollywood films, “Fearless” allows its actors to display a broader range of talents. It’s inspiring to see Huo start as an insolent youth, who only wants to prove his prowess in combat to gain friends and selfish fame, before slowly transforming into a mighty warrior worthy of the very things he previously sought (he also believes that no martial arts style is superior to another, only that certain fighters possess greater levels of skill). Betty Sun imparts ample warmth and charm, even if the character itself seems a tad cliché, while Dong turns in a fine performance as Huo’s one true friend. Strangely enough, several of the antagonists even show more personality than the main protagonists in other, recent martial arts endeavors.
The fight sequences in “Fearless” are as breathtaking as one might expect from a Jet Li project, and the celebrated Yuen Wo Ping returns to choreograph this final wushu foray for Li. All manner of kung fu and weaponry are utilized, from swords and spears to the lesser-seen three-section staff. And while wirework is present in a few sequences, it is much less pronounced, allowing the grounded look of hand-to-hand (or sword-to-sword) combat to take precedence. This approach brings a sincerer level of realism and immediacy to the proceedings, so as to overtake the milder fantasy components that threaten to distract from the real accomplishments of the labyrinthine boxer. Though a few banal villains make an appearance early on, no fight is wasted, as each battle displays technically masterful uses of varying, cinematic styles. The highlights include the final showdown against Japan’s best fighter (which takes place in two parts, the first with each man’s weapon of choice, then with plain fists), and the lengthy broadsword teahouse duel against Master Shin (Zhi-Hui Chen). Overall, with enough emotional power to match its ferociously staged engagements, “Fearless” is sure to entertain even those unfamiliar with Li’s stunning visual style.
– Joel Massie