A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #25


2006, PG-13, 104 mins.

Hua Yuanjia: Jet Li / Moon: Betty Sun / Anno: Shido Nakamura

Directed by Ronnie Yu / Written by Chris Chow and Christine To

There something subtle about JET LI’S FEARLESS that makes it an above average chop sockey auctioneer.  The film has a heartbeat and something legitimate to say.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a brainless and whimsical martial art flick (I will go on record to say that I have enjoyed more than my fair share; DISTRICT B-13, anyone?), but the wonderful thing about FEARLESS is that it infuses a soul in the midst of all of its bone crunching mayhem.  That's a welcome trait.

The film is the complete anti-thesis of a recent orgy of death defying kung fu theatrics, THE PROTECTOR, where its pervasively colorless and remorseless “hero” ploughs through an endless barrage of faceless henchmen, inflicting pain in manners that I did not think were humanly possible.  That film had a nihilism and almost sadomasochistic fascination with its violence.  In FEARLESS there are more prevalent issues under the surface, like duty, honor, and patriotism.  Oh, and FEARLESS definitely benefits from not having the astronomically charmless Tony Jaa.  If anything, the everlastingly stoic Jet Li is freakin’ Olivier compared to that Thai warrior.

Now, to be absolutely fair, I have also not been an overwhelming supporter of Jet Li either.  I have found him, in the past, to be a performer of limitless physical prowess, but of limited emotive range.  I have always been fond of Jackie Chan, who always managed to make us care for his wacky and likeable personas, even in some of his dumbest films.  Li simply did not possess those virtues.  His dexterous skills are extraordinary, but his thespian skills have always left me feeling an emotional distance with his characters.  He has astounded me with his graceful and catlike martial arts skills, but his usual one-note performances stunted his overall effectiveness.  Consider  2004’s HERO, an admirable disappointment where his vocally sparse performance undermined its sense of power and scope.  Or, look at last year’s dreadful UNLEASHED, where he came closer to playing a role of complexity, if by complexity I mean that he played a viscous dog that would inflict pain on others with the Pavlovian snap of a finger.

Yes, Jet Li has genuinely failed to inspire me.  HERO was visual sumptuous, but narratively weak.  Li’s other films, mostly North American based, have been decided groaners, like THE ONE,  CRADLE TO THE GRAVE, and the criminally unnecessary LETHAL WEAPON 4.  Those films never highlighted him as a performer of charm and poise, but he sure looked amazing kicking tail.  Regardless of my lack of sincere kudos for Li, I think that FEARLESS is a distinct step in the correct direction.  It’s all kind of a shame that this is his self-professed “last” martial art film.  Too bad, because he’s finally doing something right here.

There is something to be said, on the other hand, about leaving while you’re on a high note, and FEARLESS is indicative of this notion.  If anything, this is a gratifying film going experience in terms of its scope, visual opulence, kinetic and ingeniously choreographed action set pieces, and – most surprisingly – on the thematic department.  The stunning action scenes border on breathtaking (as they should for a film of this genre and magnitude), but the real essence of the film is in its story and main character.  The epicentre of the film is its tale of disgrace and redemption, not to mention its strong sense of nationalistic pride.  FEARLESS may superficially come across as a one-note action film, but its morality comes from its tale of salvation.  There is an amazing amount of grace and poignancy to this historical film, where underneath all of the incredible martial art moments comes a deep penetrating philosophy of what it means to fight.  Few unintelligible kung fu films have had time to ponder why one wages battle.  This is what FEARLESS tries and – for the most part – succeeds in doing.

The film is heavy on action, but it also works a well-crafted biopic.  Li, ever since he was a martial arts champion in his teens, has longed to bring a film adaptation of his idol to successful fruition.  Huo Yuanjia is a virtual legend to martial arts; an integral historical figure to the sport that truly put it on the map in the early 20th Century.  He founded what was known as the Jingwu Sports Federation that promoted "wushu" (a Chinese word for martial arts that means avert fighting or stop war).  He did all of this at a time when China was seeing an ever-perseverant foreign influence that had been decimating the country’s sense of pride and identity.  Yuanjia’s story is one of a man who tried to reclaim his country’s sense of solidarity through his matchless skills in the ring, but make no mistake about it, FEARLESS is not some simpleminded and simplistic take on his life.  Yuanjia is not put on a pedestal for geeky hero worship.  Rather, FEARLESS does an exemplary job of portraying the humanistic arc of his story, warts and all.  It’s surprisingly multi-layered in this respect, and spares little expense at showing this man for who he was at various times in his life. 

Yuanjia was a proud figure and a hero to his countrymen, but he never started as such.  As a child he tried to absorb all of his father’s martial arts lessens, often at the expense of disregarding his other scholastic endeavors.  His early aims are to take, as one Jedi master would say, the “quick and easy path" to supremacy.  Yuanjia wanted to simply be the best and wanted to take a road to success that had no time for ethical lessens on sportsmanship or the real meaning of violence against mankind.  As he trains his body, he forgets to nurture his soul.  When he grows to adulthood Yuanjia (Li) becomes the worst kind of punk – he is unmatchable in his abilities and he arrogantly knows it.  He’s like on of those obnoxious pretty boys in the high school class that all the girls want and goes out of his way to tell everyone around him that women find him irresistible.  This is a recipe for disaster.  There is something noble to be said about a sickly young lad who trains himself in secret to become his society’s most cunning warrior, but his main Achilles’ heel is his vanity and lack of humbleness. 

Rather than follow the path of most martial artists - who ostensibly look for inner peace and harmony with themselves and the outside world - Yuanjia is a gluttonous troglodyte that likes boozing and partying, not to mention joyously picking fights with whomever he wants with hopes of utterly embarrassing them.  He likes attention and admiration, and if everyday is not a rose-pedaled parade in his honor, then there is no honor to be had.  All of this, of course, culminates in a rather large fall from grace for the young warrior.  He starts to make some rather troubling decisions that costs the lives of three people, one being an enemy that has “offended” his honor, and the other two being those he holds dearest in life.  His reckless behaviour and its consequences prove to be a burden that he simply is not emotionally prepared to deal with.  He leaves his homeland in disgrace and exiles himself.

In exile he learns something highly valuable – what real wushu means to one’s body and soul in the proper context.  This section of the film feels a bit to contrived and convenient, but in the overall scheme of things it’s crucial to fulfilling his character’s arc.  While living with agricultural villagers, he learns the value of the simpler things in life, and he is able to more properly grasp the soulful concepts of contentment and harmony.  Most crucially, Yuanjia learns modesty and gratefulness for what he has, something that his cocky and egotistical past never allowed him to attain. 

When he finally decides that he is ready to return to his home, it is a place that has alarmingly changed for the worse.  If anything, he returns to his native land stronger (and wiser) than ever and begins to see that perhaps wushu and its teachings are the only way to bring his country away from the grasps of foreign cultural domination.  In order to restore his nation’s sense of identity, he establishes the Jigwu Sports Federation, whose presence is still felt to this day.  The film’s final act represents a preordained showdown between him and four international opponents that want to humiliate him and his country (my favourite being a gigantic Yankee that looks like he puts steroids in his morning coffee instead of sugar cubes).  Seeing as his countrymen are slowing becoming second-class citizens in their own lands, Yuanjia sees that the time is ripe to reclaim his nation and restore the better will and resolve of its people.  In a way, he is like a drop kicking, gravity defying, turn-of-the-century Rocky Balboa.

The sum of a few of FEARLESS’ negligible qualities are outweighed by its noteworthy ones.  A good chunk of the supporting performances are stilted and the overall story breathes with some familiarity.  Also, in the third act, the foreigners are mostly presented as one-dimensional cardboard villains.  Yet, the core of the film’s integrity breathes with vitality throughout its running time.  I found myself really engaged in the larger story of Yuanjia and how he rose from obscurity, became a vain and thoughtless warrior bent on carnage and revenge, and finally into a blissful and content man that becomes sensitive and grows a deeply rooted sense of integrity and nationalistic pride.  That’s really what makes FEARLESS so involving: it tells a story of important historical figure that goes through a remarkable personality shift in his lifetime, for the better.

Of course, a role of this weight requires an actor equal to the challenge, and Li does an astonishingly good job at presenting this multi-faceted character.  You truly gain a sense that his soul is really in the film and its persona (this is a story that he has waited decades to tell), and his performances shows an unexpected amount of range and fluidity.  Li is able to effortlessly bring out the young Yuanjia’s anger, hostility and instability in the film’s first act and is able to  channel that into a pensive and questioning figure in the film’s second act.  By the film’s third and final act we see Yuanjia finalize his transformation from selfish beast to solemn and proud countryman.  Yes, the martial arts scenes are unmistakably awe-inspiring (this is the eighth time that Li and fight choreographer Yeon Wo Ping have collaborated, and the results are as riveting as ever), but it is a testament to the film’s strength where it is able to foster our interest in its story, characters, and stunt pieces as well

Jet Li’s FEARLESS does many things absolutely right.  It’s a luscious and gorgeously mounted historical film, a stirring and layered portrait of one man’s fall and redemption, and – last but not least – it's an impressive and riveting martial arts epic that generates real thrills and excitement.  I was surprised at FEARLESS’ overall package.  I found the film eminently refreshing in the sense that it had a something larger to show audiences other than scene after scene of indiscriminate kung fu theatrics that involves bones being crushed and a viscous protagonist being placed on an altar of sadistic hero worship.  With wonderfully choreographed and sustained action scenes, a performance of remarkable breadth and poise by the retiring Jet Li (yeah, I’ll believe his retirement when I see it), and a noble-minded and philosophical lessen on re-evaluating one’s life, FEARLESS effectively preaches on many things that far too many violent and gratuitous action films don’t have time for, most notably the concepts of inner peacefulness and the frivolity and uselessness of violence to solve problems.  There are things to be learned from this film.  I just hope that Tony Jaa was paying attention.

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