“Fearless” has been one of the most talked about martial arts films in years for a number of reasons, not least of which was the announcement by Jet Li that it would be his last ‘wushu’ outing. Adding to the ensuing storm of publicity was the editing out of around forty minutes, which removed Michelle Yeoh’s role entirely, and the fact that the family of Huo Yuanjia publicly voiced their anger at the manner in which the legendary figure has been portrayed in the film. Interestingly, “Fearless” also marks the return to Hong Kong for director Ronny Yu, best known to fans for his “Bride with White Hair” films, and who has been working in Hollywood for several years now, mostly on decidedly low brow horror fare such as “Freddy vs. Jason”.
Beyond this complicated state of affairs lies a worthwhile film, one which sees a most welcome move away from the CGI enhanced flying combat which has become so common of late. “Fearless” is very much an old fashioned film, based around honest heroism and righteousness and largely freed from the philosophical shoe gazing of Zhang Yimou or the wacky excess of Tsui Hark which have sadly come to typify the modern genre.
The film follows the life of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li), national hero and founder of the Jing Wu Sports Federation, beginning with his early years of training in Tianjin and culminating in 1910 with an epic battle against four fighters who represent the foreign powers vying for control of China at the time. As such, the plot is nothing new, and plays faithfully to the template set down by countless Shaw Brothers films — young, cocky fighter pursues fame and victory, discovers the tragic price of glory, hides out in the country, learns the spiritual side of beating people up, returns to face his enemies and confront his inner demons.
Although “Fearless” does gain some points for being based on actual events, however loosely, it nevertheless carries little dramatic weight and has an inherently predictable narrative which illustrates quite neatly why Li has chosen to move away from such roles. This, of course is a criticism which can be aimed at the vast majority of genre films and, whilst offering nothing new, “Fearless” at least tells the traditional tale with a good amount of heart, and though it gives little genuine insight into its central protagonist, it makes for inspirational and unexpectedly moving viewing. In this way, it is difficult to see whether the sizable portion of the film which was removed would actually improve matters, as what remains is well paced, and certainly serves the purpose of what is essentially an action packed crowd pleaser rather than a deep and meaningful biopic.
Director Yu thankfully shows a steadier hand here than he has of late, and manages to balance the different aspects of the film very well. Although much of the narrative is concerned with tragedy and oppression, Yu manages to work in a number of light hearted touches, some of which are quite amusing. Visually, “Fearless” is a handsome affair, with some wonderfully ornate sets and gorgeous scenery providing a perfect backdrop which imbues the proceedings with a sure sense of place.
The film’s main strength is its awesome fight scenes, expertly choreographed by genre master Yuen Woo Ping. The frequent battles are breathtaking, fast, and strangely elegant despite being filled with snapping limbs and spraying blood. Although at times slightly marred by gimmicky set ups, these moments lend the film a brutal air of realism which has often been lacking in the genre. The action scenes dominate the film and make up for a fair amount of its running time, which is a definite bonus for Western viewers worried about the lack of English subtitles.
Although it may have its faults, and is at times a little hard to take seriously, “Fearless” undeniably makes for great entertainment. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, with a sincere sense of both national and personal pride, it makes for a rousing experience likely to be enjoyed by all viewers.
Ronny Yu (director)
CAST: Masato Harada …. Mr. Mita
Nathan Jones …. Hercules O’Brien
Mike Leeder …. Referee Randall
Jet Li …. Huo Yuan Jia
Shido Nakamura …. Anno Tanaka
Betty Sun …. Yueci