Let me start this by saying that I do not like the possessive that was added to the title. I can understand it from a marketing perspective, but I just do not like that it was officially tacked on to the original title. In China it was known as Huo Yuan Jia. Next, while the film is not exactly what I expected, it was still a wonderful site on the big screen.
The story is based on a true story. How accurate the exact events are, I do not know, but I am sure that events may been changed or altered for dramatic effect. The story is that of Huo Yuanjia. Around the turn of the century, he became one of the most famous martial arts fighters ever. He was a man who endured much tragedy on his journey to help restore honor to the people of China in the face of foreign occupation. Not to mention, he was the founder of the Jingwu Sports Federation which has branches all over the world.
The film is Jet Li's swan song, a love story to the epic style of martial arts films that helped his rise to fame. This is his final film using the wushu style. That means that there will be no more Heros or Once Upon a Time in Chinas starring Jet. He has said that he wishes to work on his acting, and will continue making modern action films such as Unleashed and Kiss of the Dragon. This story that Jet wanted to be involved in also represents the culmination of what he has wanted to accomplish in this style of film.
Fearless is a tale of epic proportions that follows a man on a journey of self discovery. As a young boy, Yuanjia wished to follow in his father's footsteps as a martial artist, but is forbidden due to his being an asthmatic. Defying his father's wishes, he would practice on his own while his best friend did his homework, and sneaking into town to watch his father fight.
We move forward about twenty years, and are reintroduced to Yuanjia, now a grown man. His training on the side paid off, as he is now the greatest fighter in town, however, in addition to his skills, his arrogance is unmatched. He runs roughshod over all comers, but does not seem to have much respect for anyone. His arrogance leads to a fight that he enters into without knowing all the facts, and results in the death of a rival master.
Following the escalating tragedy in his wake, he exiles himself to the countryside. Here he is charmed by a blind woman, and his discovery of self commences. She touches his soul in a way that awakens something inside that leads him to return home with a renewed sense of purpose.
The third act has the new Yuanjia returning with his new attitude on display. The story comes full circle as we come back to the fights with the foreign masters that the occupation are using to embarrass the Chinese. The film closes with the climactic fight a Japanese fighter that seals Yuanjia's status as a national hero.
The story arc may not be the most original, but it is done with great style, and features some of Jet Li's finest acting. The three acts of the film each serve distinct periods in the life of Huo Yuanjia, from his arrogant early years, to the self discovery of his years in the countryside, to his triumphant return to notoriety.
Beyond the story, the action is very good. It was choreographed by the legendary Woo-ping Yuen, and does a nice job of avoiding overuse of wires and CGI. I am sure that this has a lot to do with Jet Li's influence. Since he was making his final wushu film, I am sure he wanted to put most of his real ability on display. Not to mention his ability is nothing short of incredible. His final fight with the Japanese fighter is simply a thing of beauty.
Bottomline. Jet Li's Fearless film isn't as beautiful and thoughtful as Hero, but it is still an entertaining look at a major Chinese historical figure and is a step above many of Li's earlier films. The fights are crisp, the cinematography is nice, and the acting is a step above. Overall, this is a wonderful final film for Jet. However, I wonder about all of the cut footage and what it may have added. The footage includes much of Yuanjia's training, and the entire role played by Michelle Yeoh (as noted on IMDb). At least we got the film subtitled.