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Jet Li's Fearless Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007

ImageThe year is 1910. In China, the country is beset by foreign occupiers whose oppressive air of Western superiority rankles the population. Exacerbating this situation is the inability of any Chinese fighter to defeat a Western combatant. At a Shanghai combat exhibition, sprightly and adept Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li) steps into the arena and quickly makes mincemeat of three talented competitors. With only one match left to win, Huo faces off with a Japanese combatant (Nakamura Shidou) sponsored by the British and the story flashes back to thirty years before.

Although young Huo’s father (Collin Chou) is a powerful martial artist, he refuses to train his son. However, Huo’s passion for training cannot be stifled, and he grows up to be a highly-esteemed local Wu Shu martial arts champion, with a cadre of students and acolytes. His cocky nature brings him to ruin when he rashly confronts another local champion over a student’s indiscretion. Grief-stricken, Huo wanders China and settles in a quaint, gentle farming community where he learns the art of patience and finds inner peace. Upon returning to his hometown, he’s confronted by the racism of foreign occupiers. Huo determines to bring honor upon the Chinese people by using his martial arts skills again, this time with purer motivations and less lethal intentions.

“Fearless” is a respectable, exciting and entertaining portrayal of the real life Chinese hero Huo Yuan Jia (his name is the actual title of the film in Asia). It’s an archetypal story full of the standard martial arts film elements—the teahouse fight sequence, the martial arts hero who grows up to be corrupt, then must redeem himself, the personal tragedy that must befall him for this to happen, etc., but it’s told with sincerity and emotion. Elements of the story are almost a greatest hits package, pulling story elements from “Tai Chi Master” and “Once Upon a Time in China,” but as this is based on a true story, those films probably derived their inspiration from the real-life figure. Director Ronny Yu gives each of the fight sequences a different flavor, by varying the locations, the arena type and the lighting. As a result, the fight scenes never seem gratuitous or become tedious. The crucial teahouse fight sequence is extremely impressive. It’s an emotionally charged powerhouse full of kinetic, room destroying action and intense violence. Martial arts purists tend to balk at computer-generated bloodshed, and there’s much on display here. It’s placed within extremely busy sequences, though and it works well enough. Jet Li publicly surprised the world when he stated during filming that this was to be his last martial arts film. He repeats that claim on the featurette included on the disc. As two of his latest yet-to-be-released films are Chinese action films, one wonders how accurate this claim was. At age 42 Li is still lightning quick and spry, and “Fearless” doesn’t feel like the work of an artist on the verge of retirement. The fight sequences are very edit-heavy, with the action broken up into fast cuts. With editing one can disguise a performer’s shortcomings in this way, but there are a handful of shots that linger long enough to show Li is still impressively fast and more than up to the work at hand.

The story itself is tightly focused on the character and his journey, and the plot is quite lucid throughout, which is somewhat rare in Asian action films. On the downside, some elements are given short shrift in the story, such as Huo’s family, which could use more characterization, especially given their emotional importance. Also while Huo’s decision to relinquish fighting is extremely well-motivated, his return to fighting from his pacifist stance is handled a bit glibly.
Jet Li makes a compelling believable lead throughout and the bond of kinship established with one of his combatants is established quickly and convincingly. Director Yu and star Li have made a memorable work with tangible weight to it. The denouement is handled extremely well and has much power to it. One doesn’t usually come out of a martial arts film moved to tears, but many who view “Fearless” might find themselves reaching for their tissues during the end credits.

This disc includes the unrated edition in HD and both unrated and rated versions on the standard definition side. The unrated version only runs 30 seconds longer; had it been rated, it probably have been rated R. Curiously enough, the distributor logo is different for each edition. The unrated version has the Focus Films logo while the rated has the Rogue Pictures logo. What’s unfortunate about the unrated edition (where the more explicit violence is certainly welcome) is that it expands the film so slightly. DVD releases in other regions feature the original cut which is 40 minutes longer than the longest version included here…or 34 if you include the 6 minute deleted sequence included in the bonus materials. Another caveat is the subtitles, which are not accurate translations of the spoken lines, but “dubtitles” -- the lines from the rewritten script created for the dubbed version. This creates odd moments of subtitles appearing where no dialogue has occurred. The featurette “A Fearless Journey” runs 16 minutes and features worthwhile comments from the main participants in the production but it’s a fairly standard promo.

The HD transfer is excellent. Imagery is crisp, bright and sharp, accurately conveying the frequently rich and vivid colors. There are a few shots throughout that are a tad soft or display noisy grain (the red band around the drums seen in the opening sequence for example), but the lion’s share of the transfer is impressive. Scenes that are staged on larger sets (such as the teahouse and some of the organized exhibition fights) are full of fine details that are conveyed with a high level of sharpness and stability. Each fight sequence has its own visual look and these are well-presented here. Blacks and darker tones are dense. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack is a clear and pleasing piece of work. Dialogue is clean and the mix level is exuberant without being overpoweringly loud. The bass channel is used fairly frequently, which is to be expected for a film filled with hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat. The thunderous impacts are given tremendous room-rattling physical power in the LFE channel. The rest of the speakers are fully utilized in the mix, which enhances the kinetic action scenes and camerawork with aggressive usage of the surround channels.

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