August 12, 2013

Movie Review: Fearless (2006)

It was supposed to be the final martial arts epic in an illustrious career. Had it been, Jet Li would have gone out with a bang.*

Fearless is an epic tale on an intimate level. It focuses on a single man, Huo Yuanjia. Huo is a folk-hero in China who challenged foreign fighters at the peak of China's exploitation by the West in the early 20th century. He was also co-founder of the Chin Woo Athletic Association.

You cannot do justice in a simple review to how important Huo was to the Chinese psyche at this time. The Western Powers had made China their personal playground, dividing their cities into sectors of influence, banning Chinese from going places in their own country, and humiliating the Chinese at every turn. Huo challenged Western fighters, who usually would never show for the fight. The CWAA was an organization that gave the Chinese people back their dignity and strength. His early death, most likely from tuberculosis at the age of 42, cut short a life that seemed bound for even greater things.

This version of Huo's life has obviously had things added to it. Li's Huo Yuanjia does much more fighting in his youth than he did in real life. He goes through a period of selfishness that results in great personal loss and rebirth that did not actually occur in his life. But none of that detracts from what is a beautifully shot and performed film.

The bird's-eye shots of Tianjin and Shanghai are amazing. The camerawork during a brilliantly-choreographed fight between Master Huo and Master Chin is as kinetic as the two fighters themselves, and then instantly calms to frame them in a rainstorm, eying each other before they return to battle. The accompanying score is wonderful throughout the film.

But what makes the film even better are the messages contained within the film. The uselessness of pursuing empty personal glory over your family and friends. The destructive results of revenge and the never-ending circle it can create. The corrosive influence of unchecked industry and technology on an agrarian society (the thirty-year difference you seen in Tianjin is shocking, and quite accurate historically.) It does not take a lot to see why modern China is still so wary of the West.

And when those messages are added to the action in the film, it takes Fearless to another level.

On a personal note, I have enjoyed Jet Li's career over the years. His Wong Fei-hung series of films were the first time I saw his work. Then there was The Legend, Twin Warriors, Fist of Legend and others.

Then his American career began... Romeo Must Die, The One (personally, not as bad as some people like to say), Cradle 2 the Grave, Unleashed. It wasn't the best stuff he ever did, and I was really fearful he would steer his career into crap films like Jackie Chan has (Around the World in 80 Days, anyone?) But between The One and Grave, he starred in Hero, which I think is one of the best movies ever made. So when Fearless came out and it was supposed to be Li's final movie, I prayed it would be a high-note for one of the most talented martial arts performers of our time.

It is. It drags just ever-so-slightly in the second half of the film. But that cannot overshadow what is a fantastic film. If you haven't seen it, get it on DVD or borrow it from someone. It's that good.


* Basically, you should just never believe anyone when they say they are retiring. Be it an actor (Li), an athlete (Brett Favre), a writer (Stephen King)...anyone. I think they have to do it three or four times before it sticks.


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