Everyone knows that martial arts films rise or fall less on the credibility of plot, dialogue, and acting than the virtuosic physicality of their leading characters. Nevertheless, recent films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero have raised the bar for martial arts epics. Ten years ago, Jet Li's Fearless would have been among the classiest of martial arts pictures; today its corniness seems more prominent and more relevant to the film's endearingly clumsy efforts to entrance with action-adventure.
Jet Li's Fearless tells the barely true story of Huo Yuanjia (Li), founder of a famous Shanghai martial arts school. Writer Chris Chow and director Ronny Yu reimagine the wushu master as an egomaniacal fighter who puts being number one above all else until tragic deaths put him on the path to humility and inner peace. Li fans shouldn't worry too much about that emotional shift: Huo Yuanjia is still willing to use the wushu martial art for public ass-kicking demonstrations.
The fight sequences show off Li's skills with a variety of weapons, most notably in a climactic death-match that—believe it or not—evokes Hamlet. Wires and editing trickery help, but so does top action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, whose collaborations with Li include the superior Once Upon a Time in China films. If Fearless lacks the gonzo energy of Li's best films, Chow compensates by shaping the hero's life into an object lesson.
Even though Huo Yuanjia's various international challengers regularly backed down in real life, Chow understandably stages the smackdowns that might have been. The film stumbles more noticeably by suggesting that Huo Yuanjia was a hateful murderer until a village blind girl taught him that humility and inner peace should be the guiding principles of the martial artist (a plotline that sufficiently pissed off Huo Yuanjia's descendants to pursue a lawsuit). This elaboration and the hero's subsequent amends for youthful indiscretions fill out the film's flabby midsection.
The plot's truest element is the fighter-teacher's creation of the Chingwu Athletic Association, a school that preached the foundations of wushu: physical prowess tempered by wisdom and morality. Hate and fear, we learn, breed only more hate and fear: the true competitor is one's self. Satisfied that Fearless thoroughly articulates wushu philosophy, Li announced that the film would be his last word on the subject or, as it's billed, his "last [period] martial arts epic." Li will continue to make action films using kung fu, but if this is Li's epic swan song, it's a reasonably graceful exit.
[For Groucho's interview with Jet Li, click here.]
Universal brings Fearless to Blu-ray in a special edition whose primary bonus feature is three cuts of the film: the Director's Cut (141 minutes), Theatrical Version (104 minutes), and Unrated Version (also 104 minutes). And though the packaging makes no mention of it, you'll also find the featurette "A Fearless Journey" (16:06), a behind-the-scenes look that includes interviews in English with DP Poon Hang Sang, director Ronny Yu, Jet Li, English boxer Jean-Claude Leuyer, Belgian fighter Brandon Rhea, and Spanish swordsman Anthony De Longis. The interviews are better than average, and some terrific set footage is included. As usual, Universal also includes a My Scenes bookmarking feature.
Most importantly, the Blu-ray image and sound quality are outstanding, for a top-notch presentation that's a vast improvement over previously available versions. The image source isn't as clean and sharply detailed as the best hi-def transfers on the market, but it's pretty darn good. The Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio presentation preserves every nuance of the original soundtrack, with robust music and effects, along with clear dialogue (which is, of course, also subtitled for us Yanks).
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