Fearless (2006) / Action-Drama
aka Huo Yuan Jia
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and some language
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Jet Li, Li Sun, Shido Nakamura, Collin Chou, Masato Harada, Nathan Jones
Director: Ronny Yu
Screenplay: Christine Tow, Chris Chow
Review published March 13, 2006
Reportedly Jet Li's (Unleashed, Cradle 2 the Grave) final martial arts film (I smell a comeback film should his standard action career hit a prolonged lull in the future), Fearless casts the action superstar as real-life martial arts legend, Huo Yuan Jia, the leader and part-founder of the well-respected Jin Wu Athletic Foundation, a famous school of martial arts. In his day, which happens to be around the turn of the 20th Century, Huo became a national hero for his prowess in the fighting arena, especially as he took on foreign challengers in highly publicized fights for the honor of his countrymen and distinct philosophical way of viewing life and his craft.
Liberties are taken in his story for dramatic purposes, with some of the fighters' nationalities changed, while also representing an amalgamation of different challengers that the Chinese legend had faced. In particular, the ending is an extremely condensed version of events that happened within the final year of Huo Yuan Jia's life, tied up to give the climax dramatic power. Descendants of the Chinese hero also have been complaining about the depiction of his early years, which paints him as a sort of self-centered rogue. Chinese historians may have some difficulty with the material, but taking Fearless as a fictionalized account drawn from real events, this represents some of the best work by Jet Li in a film to date.
As a martial arts story, there aren't a great deal of surprises, as we can sense that the early hubris shown by Jet Li's character will end in tragedy, where his application of fighting for revenge ends up with deadly retribution. The aftermath and turn-around in his attitudes is also fairly routine, as he comes back a changed man after learning humility and morality, which makes him a stronger person, both in the arena and in his quiet moments. Dialogue has always been a liability in martial arts films, especially as many things are lost in translation, so it's no surprise that the screenplay isn't really anything to rave wildly about.
As far as the quality of the fighting, all I have to do is say that Yuen Woo-ping (Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill Vol. 2) is the choreographer, and you know it's going to be top-notch. Enhanced by obvious CGI and wire-fu, the choreography is still quite breathtaking nevertheless. Regardless of where you come down in terms of the dialogue and characterizations, Fearless delivers mightily on fantastic action, well worth the price of admission in and of itself. Trivia: Yuen Woo-ping is no stranger to this story, having directed a previous version in the mostly fictionalized 1982 actioner, Legend of a Fighter.
The life of Huo Yuan Jia would have a very profound effect on not only students of martial arts for generations to come, but also martial arts films. Notable entries like Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury and its remake, Fist of Legend (also starring Jet Li), showcase the fictional revenge of one of Yuan Jia's students against the Japanese for the killing of his teacher, which became the blueprint for nearly every chop-socky revenge film to follow. Interestingly, the revenge aspect of these films flies in the face of the themes presented in Fearless, so don't view this as a prequel to them by any means.
Beautifully photographed, and ultimately touching, Fearless may not be Li's very best, but it's still a rewarding martial arts biopic that should have his fans eagerly lined up for multiple viewings. If this is truly Li's final martial arts film, he picked a fine one to end his incredible career with. Ironically, Jet Li ends his martial arts career at the age of 42, the same age that Huo Yuan Jia's own effectively ended through his untimely death.
©2006 Vince Leo