It’s incredibly rare for an actor to get a possessory credit on a movie. Usually it goes to a director, if it’s given at all. (M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few who doesn’t fear looking pretentious by giving it to himself.) It is surely his immense popularity that allows Jet Li to claim such a credit – at least in the United States. Billed as his “final martial arts epic,” Jet Li’s Fearless, directed by Ronny Yu, is loosely based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a famous fighter in China at the turn of the century who ultimately created the Jingwu Sports Federation and attempted to change the face of organized fighting.
Li plays Huo who, as a child, was viciously beaten in a fight with a rival. Humiliated and vowing never to lose again, he dedicated his intervening years to mastering martial arts. As an adult, he makes good on his promise to himself, swiftly defeating almost every other fighter in his home of Tianjin. The success has, in some ways, gone to his head. While generally a jovial person, Huo is taken advantage of by his so-called “disciples” who exploit him for his generosity more than his knowledge. Best pal Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong) tries to warn him of this, to no avail. When someone callously reminds him that there is still one master he has not taken on, Huo immediately calls the guy out. It’s a case of wrong place, wrong time, and the other master is killed during the fight. His disciples get revenge by killing some of Huo’s family members.
The distraught Huo runs away and ends up at a small farming village where he befriends many, including a blind young woman named Moon (Sun Li). Her gentle, optimistic outlook on life – combined with the peaceful existence of the villagers – fundamentally changes Huo’s soul. While he still respects the artistry of martial arts fighting, he comes to believe that the traditional “death match” format is brutal and archaic. Returning at last to Tianjin, he starts the Jingwu Sports Federation and participates in a Shanghai tournament against four other fighters from other countries. The tournament’s organizers are hoping to bring shame to the Chinese, but Huo intends to use the event to make a statement about the need for the art to become more athletic and less deadly. Doing this will also help him come to terms with his own violent past, which directly led to the murder of his family.
Jet Li’s Fearless is a martial arts flick with something on its mind. It is a story about atonement and the senselessness of eye-for-an-eye violence. The plots of many martial arts movies are just excuses to have two hours of butt-kicking. This one, unsurprisingly given the hero’s arc, recognizes the consequences of deadly violence and suggests that it has no justification at any level. I liked the way you can sense Huo’s arc. He’s basically a good man who cares for his daughter and his friends. But he also has a drive to beat people up better than anyone else. His time in the village shows him a new way of earning honor that doesn’t involve the possibility of taking a life or feeling the need for vengeance.
The film cleverly unleashes that idea upon us. The early scenes, showing Huo in life-threatening combat, initially raise our adrenaline. There’s an intense fight sequence on a tiny platform suspended high above the ground. Whoever falls off loses. We watch that incredibly choreographed sequence with excitement, waiting for the inevitable moment where someone takes the plunge. There’s additionally a montage of Huo dispatching a series of opponents with almost superhuman ease. (In one shot, he holds an umbrella in one hand while pummeling his enemy with the other.) Watching this stuff, you kind of get into the idea that Fearless is going to be a glorious extravaganza of limb-snapping, whoop-ass mayhem.
But then, like the main character, we see the tragic consequences of the lifestyle. It becomes clear that Huo’s skill as a fighter is, in many respects, his downfall as a human being. There’s a subtle elegance to the scenes in the village where Huo stops to appreciate the fresh air – both literally and figuratively. When he returns with a new fighting style that eliminates (but symbolizes) the deathblow, we are suddenly rooting for him not to permanently put his opponent out of commission. It’s a sly way of subverting the expectations of the martial arts crowd, a notoriously bloodthirsty crowd. And yes, I include myself in that judgment.
The fight scenes are all presented with extraordinary skill by Li and the others. All the grace of movement and intensity of stunt work that you’d expect are here. The performances are very good as well. Like his contemporary Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li is one of the action stars who is also a capable actor, which helps sell the meaning in the story.
Jet Li’s Fearless lacks the scope of the best-of-the-best martial arts epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the visual poetry of something like House of Flying Daggers. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining and admirably ambitious movie that promises a feast of martial arts combat, which it delivers along with a poignant message of peace.
( out of four)
Jet Li's Fearless is rated PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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