When Jet Li announced that Fearless was going to be his final martial arts film, folks and fanboys were understandably concerned. After all, this is Jet Li we’re talking about, arguably one of the finest onscreen martial artists of all time, a man for whom there really is no replacement.
However, Li certainly has his reasons. In various interviews and statements, Li, who has been making martial arts movies since the age of 16, has confessed that he feels he has done as much as he can with martial arts, and wishes to branch out into other genres. Furthermore, he’s become increasingly tired with the way martial arts are often portrayed onscreen, with all of the focus placed on the violence and mayhem, rather than the arts’ philosophical and spiritual aspects. And then there’s the simple fact that, at the age of 43, Li is getting to the point where age is a concern, even for a gold medalist and world champion.
And so Fearless is his last pure martial arts movie, his final statement on the topic. And if you wanted to make a final statement on martial arts, there would be poorer choices than a film (loosely) based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who rose to prominence defending China’s honor in the early 20th century.
Despite being the son of a martial arts master, Huo Yuanjia is refused training due to having asthma. But that doesn’t stop the headstrong lad, who studies his family’s style in secret. But even secret training can’t protect him from bullies, and after being roughed up, he vows to become the strongest fighter in the city of Tianjin.
Flash forward and Huo is indeed one the region’s finest fighters, constantly defeating all challengers. However, his success has gone to his head, turning Huo into a brash, arrogant young man who turns away from his family’s teachings and surrounds himself with a gang of drunks and ruffians.
All of that changes when Huo faces his final opponent, another master named Chin. Huo proves his superiority once and for all by brutally beating the man to death. But Huo’s victory comes with a terrible price for his family.
Driven mad with grief and guilt, Huo flees Tianjin, wandering the countryside until the inhabitants of a remote village rescue him. As he dwells there, recovering from his ordeal, he finds himself drawn to the simple, gracious rhythms of the village, and even begins falling for a local blind woman named Moon. But even in this peaceful place (picture the Shire, only with rice paddies), Huo knows he must return to Tianjin and face his past.
However, Tianjin has become a very different place in the ensuing years. Driven apart by wars and internal strife, China has become easy pickings for foreigners, who have taken over Huo’s hometown with their merchants and soldiers. The foreigners hold the Chinese in contempt, even labeling them the “sick men of the East.” Realizing that he must defend China’s honor and unite the Chinese so that they can stand up to foreign forces, Huo begins challenging various foreign fighters, winning respect and acclaim along the way.
Which, of course, represents a threat to the various foreign investors and their business interests. And so they propose a final contest. Huo will face each country’s finest fighter — four in all — and the last one standing will be the victor. Huo recognizes the unfairness of it all, but agrees to fight anyway, even meeting one of the fighters, a Japanese warrior named Tanaka. But even with four fighters, the investors aren’t assured with victory, and so begin plotting behind the scenes to ensure that Huo doesn’t walk out of the arena alive.
Directed by Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair, Warriors of Virtue, Freddy Vs. Jason), Fearless is a very strong note for Jet Li to end one aspect of his career on. It doesn’t quite achieve the same status as such classic Li films as Fist of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China, or Hero, but it comes very close at times. There are definitely parts of the film that achieve a certain epic-ness that is quite moving at times, such as Huo’s final, brutal fight with Tanaka.
However, there are times where the film is hampered by either a slightly underwritten script or some over-excited directing and editing. Originally 150 minutes in length, the film was re-edited down to 105 minutes before general release, and even edited further for violence before release into American theatres.
As a result, it does feel like a few key scenes are missing, especially after Huo returns to Tianjin and then decides to become a crusader for China’s honor, a development that seems a bit too sudden and convenient. Elsewhere, there are moments where the script gets a little preachy, but its attempts to inject tolerance and understanding — especially with regards to Huo’s relationship with Tanaka — are laudable.
Elsewhere, the film’s insistence on hyperactive editing and CGI does overwhelm the exemplary subject matter, which wrestles with such themes as vengeance, honor, and loyalty. Which feels rather odd because just watching Jet Li practice his tai chi routines is more arresting than any Hollywood special effect.
Fortunately, this only happens during the early parts of the film, when Huo is still a brash young fighter. As such, it may have been something of a stylistic choice — to convey Huo’s over-ambitious, violent state of mind. Later in the film, this becomes less of an issue, and the focus is squarely on Li’s abilities. Which are aided, of course, by Yuen Woo-Ping’s always-great choreography and wirework. Even at the age of 43, Li is still a marvel to watch, graceful and precise.
Naturally, most people probably only expect flashy moves from Li, but he’s a surprisingly strong actor, and does a fine job communicating both the ambition and pride of Huo’s early days as well as the wisdom, peace, and penitence he learns near the end. It’s obvious that this is a personal project for Li, one he cares deeply for, and that shines through in his acting, his demeanor, and the whole spirit of the movie.
All of those folks complaining about violence in movies should probably be singing Fearless’ praises. Sure, there are plenty of fights in the film, as well as plenty of bloodshed. But the core of the film is a man learning the true spirit of the martial arts, that the true enemy is not the one you face in the ring but the one you face inside yourself.
Besides, how often do you watch a movie where the hero, who in real life could probably take on all comers blindfolded and with both hands and feet bound, counsels against vengeance and killing, forgives those who betrayed him, works to make amends with everyone he has wronged, and as a final act, holds back a killing blow? That right there is something of a relief to watch, and reason enough to applaud Fearless. The fact that it’s Li’s final martial arts film (though not his last action film) only makes such a message all the more poignant.