Fearless Director’s Cut (2006)
The following review may contain spoilers in order to accurately analyze and rate the film.
Fearless tells the tale of Huo Yuanjia, played by Jet Li, in a not-so-factual biographical film. As a child, Yuanjia is forbidden to practice martial arts. Being young, he doesn’t understand why is father won’t allow it, and has a friend copy a martial arts manual for him so he can practice it (oh, children and their wild ambitions.)
Skip forward several years and Yuanjia is now an adult. His father has passed away and he cares for his mother and daughter (no idea who the baby mama is though.) Yuanjia’s wall is plastered with past victories, he is the champion of Tianjin and he knows it. Dozens of new disciples bow to him each day, and he accepts every one of them without any thought.
Yuanjia’s friend, now a restaurant owner, warns that is it not good to have so many students. Huo Yuanjia ignores the plea as his fortune begins to suffer in order to feed all of his students. One night, a student is badly beaten and is carried into Huo’s residence. Finding out the master that attacked his student, Yuanjia rushes over to his friend’s diner, where the master is having a birthday party.
Huo demands the two have a match immediately, and kills Master Chin in battle. Yuanjia returns home, only to discover his mother and daughter both murdered. Filled with rage, Huo Yuanjia kills Chin’s godson, a snakelike fellow who admits to the murders. Walking back home, Yuanjia is told by his previously beaten disciple that he was attempting to rape the master’s daughter, and that was why he was beaten up.
With his reality shattered, Huo Yuanjia leaves for the countryside, where he is discovered by Moon, a blind country girl (what is it with Jet Li and blind people?) Huo does his best to forget his past and live with the villagers, but he soon realizes his one-sided and selfish thoughts are not the way the farm is run. After a year of the rural life, Huo Yuanjia has made a transformation and feels prepared to head back home and take care of the mess he left behind.
Even though only a year has passed, Huo Yuanjia comes back to a new world. Britain has begun to colonize and the citizens have even changed the way they dress. Huo’s house manages to remain standing, after some help from his old friend. Yuanjia learns that the Chinese are called the “sick men of the East.” Also, there is a man named O’Brian (Nathan Jones!) who is taking on any Chinese fighter foolish enough to challenge him.
Huo Yuanjia decides to enter the ring to take on O’Brian, but Yuanjia is a changed man. His mannerisms reflect his view on martial arts and also life in general. O’Brian is defeated and Yuanjia is offered to enter a “friendly battle” against 4 other fighters as he tries to open the Jin Wu Sports federation. Yuanjia accepts the battle from the foreigners and the nation rises as they watch the outcome of a battle that will change their lives forever, or something.
I have mixed feelings about the directing of the action, so let’s start with the negative. I feel this movie has been affected by Hollywood. There are a lot of fast cuts and a lot of speeding up in order to “get to the better parts” quicker. I know I’m a stickler for this, but I really like to see what’s going on in a fight. Granted, this isn’t the worst offense of camera cuts, but going back to the film made me notice how many there are. Especially in a period film, I think it’s important to show the beauty and grace of Wushu, not the fast paced, gritty action. It’s not that kind of movie, so I think it shouldn’t be shot like that. On the flip side, I can’t criticize the style without thinking about Huo Yuanjia as a person. I think a progression from fast cuts (when he is aggressive) to more graceful shots (as he changes) would have been cool to see.
Of course, I would be stupid if all I did was criticize this movie. Yuen Woo Ping shows amazing skill in creating visually appealing fights. Even if there is a little more wirework that I would like, Yuen Woo Ping (sounds weird if I leave any name of his out) knows what he is doing. Even with my criticism, I can’t fault the movie too much. It’s just hard when the action takes you out of the fight for a few seconds, but it’s still better than most Hollywood films. You’ll be hard pressed to find a fight on top of a large wooden platform or such creative variations on the use of weapons anywhere else. This movie knows martial arts and it handles it with dignity.
Fearless is an amazing movie. Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let’s begin. You can tell that Jet Li really poured his heart into this film. It is overflowing with morals and philosophy. There has been some confusion about this being Jet’s last movie, so let me clear that up. He said this would be his last Wushu film, which has been translated as being his final martial arts film. If you consider any fighting martial arts, then the statement is false. If you see fighting as just physical contact, and martial arts as something deeper, then Jet Li has kept his promise.
The reason why I go through the trouble of explaining this is because the movie portrays this exact idea. There are fantastic fight scenes, but it is not what the film is about. The movie is about the journey of a man who has hit rock bottom. He cared about nothing else other than winning. To him, appearance was everything, the numbers of his disciples showed his success. Until he lost everything, he didn’t see what he valued most. For some reason, people advertise this movie the wrong way. It isn’t an action movie; it’s a movie with action in it. The director’s cut is by far the best version to watch. Yes, it takes longer to get to the fights, but it you are watching it for that, you’ll be in for a surprise. Also, I want to praise the movie for not making all Japanese people bad, just all but one of them.
To be honest, it’s a shame that Jet Li is stepping away from these types of movies. Generations that follow, those who grow up watching people beating each other up, need a film like this. On the other hand, it’s great to see that Jet gets to pick his final film, so many don’t get the opportunity and they are taken too soon. In the end, Fearless is a window into the mind of a true martial artist and should not be missed by anyone who enjoys great story with good action.