Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia) Review

Jet Li claims that Fearless will be his last martial arts movie. Set in early 20th century China, it’s the story of a Wu Shu master who comes to terms with his inner demons and emerges as a national hero and role model. Ronny Yu directs. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

Fearless tells the story of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li), a folk hero who rose to fame in Northern China at the beginning of the 20th century. The asthmatic son of a Wu Shu martial arts teacher, he became a fighter against his father’s wishes and took over the family school. Huo’s fighting skills made him a local legend and attracted scores of students and admirers. His one ambition was to be the city of Tianjin’s undisputed champion.

At least that’s the story told in the first half of Fearless, which plays like a well-crafted update of the kind of martial arts movie Bruce Lee used to make. Western audiences who appreciated the art-house sensibility of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers and the inventive comedy of Stephen Chow’s films may be a little put out to find themselves watching a proper, old school kung fu flick.

Stick with it though because there’s more to Fearless than its fight scenes. The character of Huo Yuanjia develops intriguingly from a cocksure hero into an arrogant prick, whose attempts to prove himself end in tragedy. Here, around the half-way mark, the film slows down, deepens and becomes intelligent and moving. This is a drama about a man’s self-discovery and redemption, mirrored effectively by the turbulent history of China and its people.

The director is Ronny Yu, who made a name for himself in Hong Kong with his Bride With White Hair movies before moving to Hollywood, where his films (like those of several other Hong Kong directors) failed to make much of an impression. Freddy Vs Jason was a guilty pleasure; The 51st State was guilty of many things but being a pleasure wasn’t one of them.

Fearless should help re-establish him. Although it’s quite broad in places, cartoonish even, on the whole this is an impressive piece of film-making, moving effortlessly between the light-hearted melodrama of the first half and the more serious-minded material that comes later. The fight scenes, of which there are many, are superbly done and often exciting, the highlights being the duel on raised platforms and the climactic battle between sword and chain-sticks. They’re choreographed by the now legendary Yuen Woo-ping, whose credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy.

If the story seems rushed at times, it’s because nearly an hour was removed from the original two-and-a-half-hour cut, including an entire character played by Michelle Yeoh. There are certainly times when you can tell something is missing, although it’s to Yu’s credit that the movie works as well as it does minus that footage.

This is being touted as Jet Li’s last martial arts movie and if that turns out to be true, it’s a very respectable film with which to bow out. Li follows his dramatic breakthrough in Unleashed with another strong performance, doing justice to a complex character without neglecting his ass-kicking duties. There are also some memorable supporting actors, including Dong Yong as Huo’s loyal childhood friend, Betty Sun as a blind peasant girl who takes a shine to him and Shidou Nakamura as his final opponent, a Japanese fighter who in a lesser movie would be the villain but here proves as decent and honourable as Huo. Australian wrestler Nathan Jones also makes a strong impression through physique alone. The next Arnold Schwarzenegger, anyone?

Incidentally, Fearless isn’t a very good title. Huo has a lot of issues he must face but fear and the lack of it aren’t among them.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Jun 24, 2006

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