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JET LI'S FEARLESS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jet Li, Yong Dong, Betty Sun, Shido Nakamura
Director: Ronny Yu
Audio: Mandarin Chinese, English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Universal
Features: "A Fearless Journey" featurette, deleted scene, trailers
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: December 19, 2006

"One cannot choose how one's life begins.  It takes courage to finish the final step."

Film ****

Whether portraying a young monk in various Shaolin Temple films, the legendary Qing warrior Fong Sai-Yuk, or the nineteenth-century folk hero Wong Fei Hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series, Hong Kong actor Jet Li has cemented a reputation as one of the finest martial arts superstars today.  Over the course of nearly three decades, he has been the epitome of grace and elegance in motion with few equals among his action film peers.  But after appearing in so many of the best martial arts films of recent years, Jet Li made a startling announcement in 2006 - Jet Li's Fearless would be his swan song, the international superstar's farewell to the wushu martial arts genre.

His fans may mourn his premature retirement from action films, but at least Jet Li has saved the best for last.  In Jet Li's Fearless, Li portrays the true-life folk hero Huo Yuanjia, a martial arts master who challenged the authority of imperialist nations dominating turn-of-the-century China.  Fans eager to see Li in action are not kept in suspense very long.  The film (at least in the U.S. distribution version) opens with three tournament fights in quick succession.  Following this exhilarating opening, the film begins a long flashback recounting pivotal events in Huo's early childhood and the later tragedies leading up to his participation in the film's climactic tournament fights.

Jet Li's Fearless is a film of three acts.  In the first part, we bear witness to the development of a brass and arrogant young man, a skilled martial artist who considers the practice of wushu as simply a way of achieving ever-greater prestige and power.  This Huo Yuanjia fights any and all challengers in his all-consuming quest to achieve the title of champion of Tianjin.  While many of the fight sequences in this portion of the film are quite spectacular, they do reveal a cruel and superficial side of the young Huo.  This young man is really a monster, blind to the value of true friendship, such as that of his childhood comrade Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong), and answering only to an undying lust for fame and power.  He does not comprehend the lessons once taught to him by his wiser father, also a wushu master - that the practice of martial arts without spiritualism is simply baseless violence.  The film's first act, not surprisingly, ends with an incredible fight sequence that is both awe-inspiring yet also rather tragic in its consequences.

The film's middle portion represents its true spiritual core.  Disgraced, Huo Yuanjia abandons his home to become a wanderer.  His life becomes soulless, an existence without purpose, and he retreats into the countryside to lose himself.  Rescued by humble villagers and befriended by a blind peasant girl Moon (Betty Sun), Huo slowly undergoes a transformation as his eyes are opened to the true value of a spiritual existence, one that embraces the strength of community and brotherhood over egocentric solitude or personal gain.

This leads, of course, to the film's final act, an emotional journey back to redemption.  Huo returns to his childhood town a humbler and wiser man.  After a long absence, he discovers a turbulent China radically changed through interference from the foreign imperialist nations of Japan and the West.  These foreigners mock the Chinese man as a "sick man of the East" and Huo realizes that within him lies the potential to become a true leader to his people and to help China reclaim its national pride.  Huo opens a new academy to teach his spiritual philosophy of wushu to the Chinese; only in his final years does Huo Yuanjia realize and comprehend at last the true wisdom of his father.

Jet Li's Fearless is truly a sweeping film of rather epic proportions, encompassing the rise, fall, and final redemption for its central character.  While the story is a very loose interpretation of actual events in Huo Yuanjia's life, it does accurately reflect the real Huo's commitment to restoring Chinese national pride through non-violent means rather than physical conflict.  This film's numerous action sequences may be quite spectacular to behold and should thrill most viewers, but the film's essence lies in its message of unity and brotherhood.

United we stand, divided we fall - this common theme lies at the heart of many wushu films, alluding to the sense of emasculation that many Chinese felt following their country's submission to foreign invaders.  However, most wushu films only use this theme to justify some major whoop-ass on western baddies, whereas Jet Li's Fearless, while certainly not skimping on the action, ultimately prefers to emphasize compassion and friendship over bitter rivalry.

Obviously, there is little in Jet Li's Fearless plot-wise that hasn't been seen previously in countless martial arts films.  But the synergy of these familiar themes, the level of acting, the high caliber of the sensational action sequences, the truly epic feel of this film - all of these characteristics serve to elevate Jet Li's Fearless beyond the level of a standard kung-phooie flick to the status of a truly great martial arts film.

The most formidable enemy lies within oneself, and the true wushu master is a man who understands this and who strives to become a better human being, a man of peace, not a killing machine.  There is no better way for Jet Li to close out his distinguished action film career than with such a message.

Video ****

There are two versions of the film on this disc, one the original U.S. theatrical release and the other a slightly more violent, unrated one.  Neither version is actually the original director's cut, which contains over thirty minutes of extra footage (including modern-day scenes with Michelle Yeoh).  Most Hong Kong films are re-edited or re-cut for U.S. distribution, and this is the case with Jet Li's Fearless as well.  Many of the cuts here seem to involve all the modern-day sequences and significant portions of the quieter middle portion of the film.

Otherwise, the video quality for the film as presented on this disc is excellent.  Colors are warm with rich definition.  Skin tones are realistic, and the transfer is a pristine one, always an area of concern for Asian films, which over the years have not been well-preserved.

Audio ****

The film defaults to the Chinese soundtrack, but anyone not wishing to read subtitles can always opt for the (inferior) English dubbed track.  Happily, both 5.1 tracks deliver the goods quite aggressively once the action begins.  Suffice it to say that Jet Li's Fearless sounds superb.

Features *

This disc opens with trailers for Balls of Fury, Hot Fuzz, American Pie: the Naked Mile, and The Black Dahlia.  The remaining bonus extras are a featurette and one deleted scene.

"A Fearless Journey" (16 min.) focuses on Jet Li's personal philosophy and this film's message advocating peace and non-violence.  Jet Li also relates his deep affinity for the film's themes...and sadly also confirms that Fearless will be indeed his final martial arts film.  One cannot blame him; after all, the film already epitomizes the martial arts philosophies that the action superstar has long held dear.  After Fearless, what else does Jet Li need to say?

The inclusion of just one deleted scene (7 min.) on this disc is somewhat hypocritical considering that over thirty minutes of extra footage is available elsewhere on a director's cut disc.  Still, this deleted sequence is an interesting one that reveals more of Huo Yuanjia's transformation from a violent and superficial character into someone more compassionate and thoughtful.

BONUS TRIVIA:  In addition to portraying Huo Yuanjia in this film, Jet Li also portrayed Huo Yuanjia's top student, Zheng Sheng, in the film Fist of Legend.

Summary:

Jet Li's Fearless is the international action star's spectacular farewell to the martial arts genre.  Not only is it one of Jet Li's finest films, but it is easily the best straight-forward martial arts film in over a decade.  Despite its truncated form in the U.S. release, this film receives my top recommendation for all fans of wushu films!

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