Fearless (2006)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-10-22
“Fearless” is an extraordinarily well made movie that works on several levels. If it is Jet Li’s last martial arts epic he has covered himself in glory with it. The plot is straightforward—it follows the rise, fall, rise and ultimate near transfiguration of Huo Yuanjia. It looks and sounds great—composer Umebayashi Shigeru and set designer Jeff Mak both did sterling jobs. The score—especially the drumming and the synthesizer-augmented low strings—is memorable but wasn’t intrusive. You noticed it when it was part of the action on the screen, for example when the drummers at the last fight were shown but it was simply part of the overall experience otherwise. The design and cinematography of the interlude in the Shangri-la type rural commune was stunning and almost (but not quite) too perfect. Jet Li did a credible job as Huo Yuanjia and he was surrounded by terrific actors most of whom inhabited their parts most ably. The themes explored include the possibility of redemption for even the most heinous transgressions, the necessity for unity of an oppressed people in the face of the oppressors and the ability of one person to rise above the seeming inexorable march of events and to change history.

It opens with Huo Yuanjia in the fight of his life, pitted against warriors from four of the powers occupying China. The fight has been set up by the Foreign Chamber of Commerce to show the Chinese that no one, not even their most skilled and diligent fighter, can overcome their combined might. Huo makes quick work of the first three, from England, Belgium and France. Each of the western champions is an expert in one discipline of battle and each of them has the same essential approach, a hyper-aggressive attack at all times style. The Englishman is pre-Marquis of Queensbury bare knuckles boxer who doesn’t land a punch before he is propelled from the fighting surface. The Belgian, apparently a mounted lancer (he fights in the dress uniform of a cavalryman) gives up quickly when he breaks his lance over his knee in frustration, allowing Huo to pin him with his now longer weapon. The Frenchman uses a sword that looks to be a combination of a saber and a cutlass which can only be used in lunging, slashing movements. Since Huo is a master of all weapons he easily disposes of him, although with a bit more effort than the first two.

That the European powers are feckless and coarse is shown both by the ease with which their fighters are defeated and also by the way their proconsuls are influenced by Mr. Mito, the Japanese leader. The white guys know only one way of dealing with upstarts from the colonies, to smash them with a mailed fist. The Japanese, while willing to use brutal force, are also smart enough to make sure the enemy has been weakened enough to be defeated. The westerners might as well be cardboard cutouts labeled “Imperialist” while the Japanese duo of Mito and Anno Tanaka, masterfully played by Nakamura Shiduo, show the extremes of dishonesty on one hand and nobility on the other.

There are many perfect or almost perfect moments in “Fearless”. One is during the battle between Yuanjia's father and the representative of the main competing martial arts style. When Yuanjia's father sees him in the audience he holds back on what might have been a killing blow, allowing his opponent to knock him from the ring and win the match. The “death waiver” had already been signed, an image that occurs several more times and is a small but key part of the transition of Huo from local tough guy to revered national leader. Another is during the idyllic interlude in the countryside when, to show how the people there are connected to nature, everyone stops what he is doing when the wind comes up to simply enjoy the breeze across his face.

Hou’s counterpart is Nong Jinsun, essentially Lincoln Kirsten to Huo’s George Ballanchine, supplying the capital and managerial expertise so that the (martial) artist is free to create and in this case unify and lead. It is very much a sidekick role, helping to emphasize Huo’s moods and feelings at key times and also to act as his conscience when necessary. They are lifelong friends—Nong does Huo’s homework so that he can practice kung fu when they are children, tries to reason with him when he challenges Mr. Chin, gives him the money to go to Shanghai to fight Hercules O’Brien and sells his restaurant to finance the start up of the new martial arts movement. Dong Yong does all of this very well and creates a character the audience comes to like.

Betty Sun Li has a breathtakingly beautiful face which is all we see of her as Yueci (Moon in the subtitles). We love Yeuci from the beginning. She helps to rescue Huo, washes his hair, feeds him, fixes his mistakes while planting rice and feels bad when he leaves even though she knew from the beginning that he would. To top all of that, she is blind but accepts her condition without complaint. It would be difficult to do a bad job as Yueci and I look forward to seeing Betty Sun Li in a more challenging role.

Nathan Jones looks like he was having a great time as Hercules O’Brien, the Australian superheavyweight who beat all comers until he met Huo. He bounces around the ring like a World Wrestling Federation performer which he formerly was. Since this battle is as foreordained as the ones he formerly participated in as a professional wrestler, one can enjoy the comic relief that his scenes bring.

Nakamura Shiduo is perfect as Tanaka, the fourth of the four fighters that Huo faces in the fight that frames the movie. Huo’s life is told as a flashback between the last of the western fighters and Tanaka. Nakamura has a wonderful face—flattened nose, deeply set eyes and a look of menacing calm that seems natural. He moves with an easy grace and has real star power. He is completely believable as the conflicted martial artist who realizes too late that he has been tricked and is not fighting for the honor of his country but to continue the persecution of fellow Asians and for the private profit of Mr. Mito and his European cohorts.

It is clear from “Fearless” that Jet Li is well past his prime as an actor in action films. He is still very fit and athletic, has charisma to burn and makes on believe that he could defy the laws of physics with his moves. But it is also obvious that he is older and heavier than in the roles with which his public most identifies him. Unfortunately he isn’t a very good dramatic actor. Until now acting is what Jet Li did when he was not fighting and the audience would put up with painfully wooden line readings and barely appropriate expressions because we knew in a few minutes he would be beating up a platoon of bad guys. He simply doesn’t have the skill to star in a movie with little or no action and he is too big a star to play character roles. While other men have had very long and successful careers after they could no longer credibly fight it out onscreen—John Wayne leaps to mind—they were able to continue to do their signature maneuvers. Wayne, for instance, was able to hold a gun and shoot people until the very end. But the martial arts actor is much more limited in that he can’t depend on props like firearms (or CGI or constructive editing) to keep continue the magic—at least not for very long.

One example of his limited range is in the scene in which he is holding his the body of his just killed daughter. It is the kind of scene that even mediocre actors look forward to and can generally nail and that great actors sear into our memories. The actress playing the daughter’s nanny, shot over Jet Li’s shoulder, showed more emotion in her movement than he did in his close-ups.

In his favor, he is a seasoned movie performer for whom being in front of the camera seems to be second nature. He has a worldwide reputation that would allow him to take a couple of years off from the screen to plunge into learning the art and craft of acting and has millions of fans who want to see him succeed.

Very highly recommended.

Reviewer Score: 9