Before leaving the martial arts genre, Jet Li wanted to make a film that presented the practice in its entirety. In his opinion, too many films focused only on the fighting and physical aspects while completely leaving out the mental/spiritual components that are equally as important. He accomplished his goal with Fearless, a fictionalized biography of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial arts master who rose to notoriety at the beginning of the 20th century and the end of Qing Dynasty as European countries and Japan colonized China.
The film opens in Shanghai 1910 during a martial arts bout sponsored by the Foreign Chamber of Commerce between Huo and four international fighters: an English boxer, a Belgian spear-man, a Spanish swordsmen, and Tanaka, a Japanese martial artist. The plan is for Huo to be defeated, and in turn the spirit of the Chinese people.
After the first three bouts, the story flashes back 30 years to when Huo was a young boy. He was headstrong and wanted to learn his father’s wushu teachings, but his father forbid it. Over the years, Huo persevered and was determined to be the best fighter ever, although much like being the fastest gunslinger, the title brought with it fortune, good and bad.
Huo became a celebrity. Everyone wanted to be close to him. He had a school where he trained fighters and held court at the restaurant of his childhood friend, Nong, where he always picked up the check, but soon had trouble paying it.
Chin, another well-known fighter, came to town and tensions rose. One of Huo’s students was given a beating by Chin, enraging Huo, who sought revenge. Chin was celebrating his birthday at Nong’s restaurant and Huo barged in. Chin and Nong asked for the fight to wait, but Huo called out Chin in front of everyone and his pride forced him to accept. The battle had tragic results for everyone involved.
Filled with shame and remorse, Huo exiled himself and wound up in the care of a Siamese village where he learned about life’s truths. He returned a better man only to find his city occupied by foreign powers. When American boxer, Hercules O'Brien, challenged any of the “Sick Men of Asia” to fight, Huo accepted. At the time, all the fights may have ended in death for the loser, so both men had to sign a waiver beforehand. Huo illustrated his spiritual growth by not allowing O’Brien to die.
Huo opened up a successful martial arts school, Jingwu Sports Federation, and the people rallied behind him. The Foreign Chamber of Commerce didn’t like losing control, so they set up a series of matches against Huo, which he accepted. Nong smelled a trap, but Huo was aware of what rewards would come if he succeeded. The story comes full circle and the final bout between Huo and Tanaka takes place. Tanaka found the contest unfair, but Huo allowed it to proceed as planned.
Fearless rises above other martial arts film by taking the story one step further and showing the ramifications of the violence. That high-mindedness may put some viewers off, but the film isn’t as cerebral as it sounds. There’s plenty of glorious action choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping. Whether hand-to-hand or weapons combat, there are plenty of great set pieces, especially the fight in Nong’s restaurant. The special effects are limited and only once was I distracted by something that looked unreal. It’s mainly just the skills of the men on screen and director Ronnie Yu wisely keeps the camera wide to capture the violent ballet.
The DVD extras include and short documentary about the film, “A Fearless Journey,” and a deleted scene when Huo was staying with the villagers where he takes on the punishment for a young boy. Nothing is lost by its absence, but it is well worth seeing. The audio is in Chinese and dubbed in English. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French. The few times English is spoken in the original film it is subtitled as well. The Widescreen Edition is presented in Anamorphic 2.40:1.
For film buffs, in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, which used to be known as The Chinese Connection until 2005, Lee played Chen Zhen, a fictional student of Huo Yuanjia. That film was twice remade as New Fist of Fury starring Jackie Chan and Fist of Legend starring Jet Li.