The martial arts master’s final epic is great when the fists and feet are flying.
After serving as the go-to guy for martial arts epics over the past decade, including the Once Upon a Time in China series, Tai Chi Master, Hero and a host of others, Jet Li has decided to call it quits for martial arts epics, delivering what he calls his “most personal and important martial arts movie” with Jet Li’s Fearless.
Fearless tells the story of the Chinese legend Huo Yuanjia, whose story Li has been trying to bring to screen for nearly a decade. Huo (Li) was the son of a great fighter who vowed to never lose a fight. As his skills excelled, so too did his own sense of pride and, consequently, his ego. When a confrontation with a rival master ends in tragedy, Huo must leave Tianjin to rediscover himself. Consumed with grief and near-death, the former master is rescued by a young blind women who takes him back to her small village. Once recovered, Huo begins to understand the hollowness of his former life’s ambitions. He decides that the future of martial arts should be focused on sportsmanship rather than brutality, ultimately forming the Jingwu Sports Federation, which exists to this day.
Directed by Ronny Yu (Warriors of Virtue, Freddy Vs. Jason), Fearless re-unites Li with famed action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, which marks their seventh collaboration. The supporting cast includes Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li and Dong Yong.
Fearless opens with Jet fighting in a sports competition against three challengers. Before he meets the final opponent, the story moves back to the childhood of Huo Yuanjia.
Young Huo is desperate to learn the Wushu fighting techniques of his father, but he isn’t yet ready. He challenges a young peer and is beaten, after which he takes the infamous vow to never lose again. The story then moves to Huo’s adulthood as one of Tianjin’s greatest martial artists, showcasing an almost endless series of intense fight sequences in increasingly impressive visual settings. Huo battles opponents on some pretty cool backdrops, from a stone stage in the town square to a gigantic wooden tower of death on which the loser could catapult to his death far below.
The team of Wu, Wo Ping and Li (who also serves as a producer) serve up a wide range of exceptional action sequences featuring hand-to-hand combat, sword fighting and assorted variations of weaponry battle. These sequences are fast-paced, often brutal and very well choreographed and shot, as is to be expected from this team. Li’s abilities shine through again and again, with only a few instances where the wirework is particularly obvious.
Building up the great fighting legend of Huo is the fun part of Fearless, but it’s when the story really tries to lay claim to its epic status that the flow takes a few missteps. Huo’s post-tragic journey of discovery within the small village feels a bit jarring after the intensity of the first portion of the tale. These scenes aren’t bad per se, but they don’t have the weighty dramatic feel that seems to be intended. In essence, it feels as if Li and crew are trying far too hard to deliver an important feel to Fearless to avoid being mistaken for merely an action flick. It doesn’t really work, feeling instead like more of a stopgap before the fighting we’re all awaiting returns.
Li’s work as a martial artist is top-notch as expected. Fearless’s fighting sequence rank as some of the best ever performed by Li, which is really saying something. Dramatically, Li’s work is not on par with that of Hero.
Jet Li’s Fearless is a good martial arts flick that feels longer and heavier than need be. As an action movie that incorporates the Wushu techniques of Huo Yuanjia of which Li himself is a student, there’s a lot to like. The fights are spectacular. As a historical work that captures the essence of Huo’s journey and delivers a truly compelling biopic element, something is missing. Unfortunately, these scenes which probably mean so much to Li himself will probably be those in which his fans head for the restrooms or drift off in detachment waiting for the next battle sequence.