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Movie Review: Huo Yuan Jia/Fearless

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“Every knot can be untangled.”

This hopeful action/drama film, Fearless reteams Jet Li with producer Bill Kong (Hero) and action director and choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (Unleashed). Li takes the lead as Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial arts fighter who takes a deep personal journey and keeps his promises made at important life crossroads.

Director Ronny Yu uses flashbacks and some signature close camera shots to tell the story, loosely based on real life events surrounding the famous Huo Yuanjia. Yu also creates some iconic moments (Huo’s field practice) and sequences (a memorable discussion about tea) that etch deep memories lasting long after this one hour and 43 minute film has ended. More historical background in the plot would’ve been helpful, but it doesn’t take long for Huo’s personal story to jump to the forefront.

The martial arts genre has been known for life lessons in the dialogue — some great, some not so great. In this case, great lines like “Fear and respect are not the same,” and “The most formidable enemy lies within you” boost this film’s credibility.

As the 20th century begins, Huo Yuanjia seeks the title of martial arts champion of Tianjin. The title Fearless directly describes the way Huo looks at his opponents, but the secondary emotions tied to that look change each time ranging from rueful to arrogant. Huo’s foreign adversaries include performances by Australian native Nathan Jones (Troy) as the “Hercules” fighter and Shido Nakamura as the honorable Japanese fighter Anno Tanaka.

Collin Chou (Seraph from the Matrix film series and the upcoming DOA: Dead or Alive) plays Yuanjia’s father, even though he’s actually about four years younger than Jet Li. Yong Dong has a memorable performance as Huo’s best friend, Jinsun, and Sun Li debuts on the big screen as Huo’s love interest, Moon. “I see everything with my heart,” says Moon, who teaches Huo valuable life lessons during an emotional respite from his martial arts activities.

The martial arts sequences hit high marks thanks to action choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, veteran of more than 40 martial arts action films, including the Matrix and Kill Bill film series. The high tower fight and intense restaurant brawl showcase Li’s amazing spectrum of fighting skill. The final fight music creates a capstone for Shigeru Umebayashi’s timeless musical score. Highly recommended and rated PG-13 for action violence and intense martial arts action. Note: Fearless has English subtitles with Mandarin, Japanese, and English languages.

Look for an Oscar nomination next year for best foreign language film, following in the footsteps of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans can hopefully expect an extended version and Michelle Yoeh’s deleted scenes on the upcoming DVD. Fearless has been misleadingly dubbed Jet Li’s “last martial arts” film. He’s definitely not retiring from action movies (look for his upcoming assassin/FBI action film Rogue with The One co-star Jason Statham).

Ever since his debut in The Shaolin Temple in 1982, Li has made a successful transition to famous Chinese martial arts champion to Hollywood heavyweight. His fighting skills continued to amaze wide audiences with the popular Once Upon a Time in China film series, The Defender, and Fist of Legend. Li’s 1998 Hollywood debut as a deadly antagonist in Lethal Weapon 4 helped push martial arts action movies to the forefront of the genre. His martial arts talents also saved weak plotted movies like Cradle 2 the Grave and Romeo Must Die.

So, Jet Li ends his major martial arts work with the high quality showcase Fearless (Hero remains his best work), but don’t expect him to slow down too much. Jet Li fans can also hope for a long awaited project with Jackie Chan.

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