Jet Li’s Fearless
2006Director: Ronny Yu
Cast: Jet Li, Shido Takamura
hen you walk into a Jet Li movie, it’s safe to say that (unless you haven’t been paying much attention) you aren’t expecting an artistic masterpiece. You are, however, expecting a reasonably compelling storyline on which to hang the astonishing martial arts fight scenes that are the real reasons to watch Li’s films. If some occasional nuggets of Buddhist spiritual wisdom sneak into the plot, then more’s the better. By that standard, Fearless delivers exactly as expected, which is both its strength and the source of its greatest problem—we’ve seen this movie before, or at least versions of it, countless times. For a movie billed as Li’s “final martial arts epic,” you could hope for something with a greater sense of vision. Instead, we get a movie that is perfectly competent, blandly inoffensive, and largely uninteresting beyond the aforementioned scenes of well-choreographed ass-kickery. Fearless is totally functional, but it’s also disappointingly paint-by-numbers.
According to Li, the more-or-less true story behind Fearless is one he’s wanted to put to celluloid for some time. Huo Yuanjia is one of the more important figures in martial arts (and modern Chinese) myth, having founded the Jin Wu Sports Federation and demonstrated himself as the most important fighter in China at the beginning of the 20th century. In this film, Huo (Li) starts off as an arrogant pissant of a martial arts prodigy, honing his skills mostly to prove his glory in competitions, surround himself with adoring sycophants, and get hammered and party until the break of dawn. In other words, Huo is a martial arts master as Rock Star. If he isn’t as interested in learning the spiritual discipline and self-restraint aspects of the martial arts, well, who really cares when you can drop-kick your opponents into oblivion and then celebrate by getting drunk with your ne’er-do-well “disciples?” Much to the disgust of his best friend Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong), Huo gives no thought whatsoever to the potentially constructive uses of his enormous fighting skill, including mustering some Chinese national pride against the Western “foreigners” who are beginning to make their corrupting influence known.
But quicker than you can say “clichéd character arc,” events force Huo to reevaluate his priorities. After impetuously taking on and killing his province’s greatest fighter in a brutal (and spectacularly well-filmed) martial arts battle, the fighter’s family has Huo’s mother and daughter killed. Despondent to the point of suicide (you can tell because he grows a long beard), Huo hurls himself into the river and is only rescued by the kindly citizens of a rural village, who quickly reveal themselves to be At Peace With the Natural World and possessing the inner strength that Huo so desperately needs. There’s also a pretty girl, as there always is in these situations, and in about ten minutes of screen time, Huo discovers the spiritual core to the martial arts, mostly by hearing the villagers utter profundities that could have been written by Tony Robbins and, quite literally, standing still while the wind rustles around his body. It’s like the Beatles going to the Maharishi, only there’s no White Album to reward us for Huo’s efforts. There is, however, more ass-kicking to be done—but this time, for honor.
That’s right—our friend Huo leaves the village armed with a new sense of tranquility and a suddenly well-honed streak of xenophobia. Reconciling with his friend Nong, he is informed that Western interests are now dominating China and ruining its culture, in addition to unleashing insults as to the fighting ability of the Chinese male. Huo, realizing that he needs to unify China around his martial spirit (the Chinese government must love this movie), starts his martial arts school and enters into a climatic tournament with four other fighters, all of whom represent different nationalities and all of whom apparently desire nothing more than to humiliate the people of China by pounding Huo into dust in front of a large crowd. You can probably guess how that plan turns out.
Fearless was clearly designed to be a crowd-pleaser from the word go, and on that level, it basically succeeds. The fight scenes are uniformly great (Li’s athleticism and grace are truly mesmerizing), and the story is interesting enough, and leavened with just enough humor, that our eyes don’t glaze over when the kicking, punching, and sword-fighting come to a halt. That’s not to say that the story has real depth or is even told with particular skill—merely basic competence. The village scenes, which are supposed to represent Huo’s spiritual awakening, come across as underdeveloped and annoyingly in love with the supposed purity of the peasant lifestyle (a trope that is unfortunately common across all filmmaking cultures— the next period adventure that actually depicts the rural life as one of backbreaking labor and its denizens as anything other than practically mystical defenders of homespun virtue automatically gets my vote for Best Film of the Year). And the corrupt “foreigners” are nothing short of cartoonish in their villainy. With their black suits, carefully coiffed facial hair that they stroke deviously at appropriate intervals, and greedy sneers, they lack only a monacle or two and a terrified maiden to tie to the railroad tracks to qualify as the bad guys in a silent movie. I’m all for melodramatic evil in my sweeping action films, but these guys practically smell of sulfur, particularly when compared with the saintly Jet Li.
This is not a bad film, per se. It’s just a remarkably conventional, predictable one, which is all the more disappointing since Li has revealed himself as not only finished with the genre, but perfectly capable of expanding its scope into something truly riveting. For a solid two hours of not-bad martial arts moviemaking, Fearless will do well enough, I suppose. But for a true “martial arts epic” worthy of the name, you’re better off renting Hero.
Jet Li’s Fearless is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2006-10-05