Fearless AKA Jet Li's Fearless AKA Huo Yuan Jia
R3 - Hong Kong - Edko Films
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (26th February 2007).
The Film

For my money there is no better martial arts action star of this generation than Jet Li. Forget Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa (although I have a feeling this young man will become the next martial arts action icon) and even Chuck Norris...there I said it: Jet Li can kick Chuck Norris' ass any day and I don't care who knows it.
I was introduced to Li like most other Western mainstream audiences, from his appearance in "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998) when he cleaned the floor with Murtaugh and Riggs, well at least until the end when they fought him together and won...just barely. I was captivated by his onscreen presence; he commanded the camera and his fighting abilities were out of control. I'd never seen anyone move as quickly as he had during those fights. I later discovered a treasure trove of films made while in Hong Kong, which opened a completely new world for me. "Swordsman II" (1991), "The Tai-Chi Master" (1993), " Once Upon a Time in China I, II and III" (1991-1993), "King Fu Master" (1993) and "Fist of Legend" (1994) were among my favorites and in an action career spanning over 25 years and some 36 movies Li has decided to call this film his final martial arts epic.
"Fearless" tells the story of a Chinese martial arts master, Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li ) who was the founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. From childhood Yuanjia had wanted to learn wushu and fight like his father, a popular fighter at the time. When he loses a match, Yuanjia is challenged by a local boy in order to defend his family name. Yuanjia is beaten and from that point onwards he made a vow that no one would beat him again. As an adult Yuanjia fought his way to the top, beating opponent after opponent and became the self-proclaimed champion. His egotism and arrogance destroyed his personal life, in an effort to claim ultimate championship he lost his best friend and saw the murder of his family.
Yuanjia, tormented and angry, left his home and journeyed to remote China, where he was discovered by villagers. For the next few years he would live the simple life, working the rice paddies and connecting with the simple things. This time served as therapy, the anger inside subsided, his arrogance and egotism was no more. He returned to his home and then went onto Shanghai to participate in a tournament to defend the honour of his country. In the process he etched his name into history and legend.
I must admit that after seeing the trailers for this film online I got goose bumps, sitting through this film was in a word exciting. However, as one would expect the story is fairly simple, Yuanjia always wanted to be a fighter, his fighting caused him to lose everything and his fighting also allowed him to gain it all back by the end. Despite this wafer thin plot, screenwriter Chris Chow finds ways of adding depth to the character by providing a rich history behind him and his motivations (and not the usual "someone killed my master and I must get revenge" motivational through line you see in many martial arts films). Care was taken with developing this character's depth to ensure he's not the typically two-dimensional action hero.
Over the last couple of years Li has surprised me as a performer, taking on dramatically demanding roles and turning in impressive performances. Especially in last year's schizophrenic yet none-the-less fantastic "Danny the Dog" (2005) (aka "Unleashed"), Li stretched his acting chops alongside Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins and managed to give them a run for their money, delivering a poignant and sensitive performance (on the other hand there was the ferocious action). "Fearless" shows off Li's acting range as his character moves from one chapter in this life to the next, and not just relegating himself to stone cold stares during the fight scenes.
The photography lends a very epic feel to the film. Shot in cinemascope, the 2.35:1 frame is vast and captures the turn of the century China in all its depth. The camera techniques could be considered contemporary, with the use of crane shots getting near impossible angles and movement following the action. There were a few shots that tip the hat to traditional Kung-fu films including the quick zoom, being a staple of the genre for many years.
"Fearless" used the close mid-shot with fast zoom out to reveal a massive wide set occasionally. Matching the overall modern feel of photography was the film's fast paced editing, although the pace tended to slow down as the story required. I did find some of the sped-up moments in the fight scenes a little too music video-like. It somehow doesn't feel right considering the era this film's story takes place in.
Now, let's get to the real reason you'd go to this flick...the action! Li teams up with fight choreographer extraordinaire Woo-ping Yuen and the result is some of the best Kung Fu action committed to film that I have ever seen. From the opening battle, that sees Li lay to waste a series of combatants from around the world, to his rise as the champion. Some of the most impressive set pieces were the wooden structure fight with his childhood bully. Balancing high off the ground the two fought within a small area utilising close proximity fighting styles. And a sword battle in a restaurant counts among the more violent encounters in the film. The sequence begins with a vicious sword battle that lays waste the premises and continues into hand-to-hand combat leaving his enemy bloody and with a broken shoulder blade that pops out of his back. Certainly not for the faint-of-heart these scenes are fast, furious and totally exciting. However the best is certainly kept for last, as Yuanjia faces his Japanese adversary Tanaka (Shido Nakamura) in a three stage battle royale that will leave you on the edge of your seat. In fact, I found myself out of my seat during many of the exhilarating moments of this fight.
The fight choreography was certainly the delicious cherry on the top, "Fearless" is quite possibly Li's finest martial arts film, it breached my expectations and is an excellent way of saying goodbye to a genre that made Li a household name.

This 'Director's Cut' features some additional footage not seen in the previous released editions including the R1 DVD from Universal which features both a US 'Theatrical Cut' and an 'Unrated Cut'. This 'Director's Cut' includes the following:

This version of the film adds nearly 40 minutes back into the film, several changes include the addition of a sub-plot featuring Michele Yeoh which adds another layer of history to this already rich story. It also adds back the Muai Thai kickboxing scene in which our hero saves a village boy from getting a beating. Unlike the previous cut this one takes its time to unfold but the additional character moments and storylines certainly expand to make it a more satisfying experience.

Video

Presented in a ratio of 2.35:1 this anamorphic widescreen image is not as good as the vibrant and rich R1 transfer released through Universal Pictures. I felt that this transfer was a little flat; especially the colors and blacks were not as bold and deep as I would have liked them to be. Sharpness was also a mixed bag, with close shots appearing crisp and detailed but too often wide shots appeared too soft and lacking in detail, just look at the scene near the end of the film when the crowd rushes the ring at the end of the climactic fight for a good example of this. Overall I felt this was an average transfer at best.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included, the first in the film's original language Mandarin DTS ES 5.1 Matrix surround and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track. For the purposes of this review I chose to view the film in its DTS ES track and I'm pleased to report that it's a full, robust, vibrant, aggressive and dynamic sound mix that will blow your speakers out. The dialogue is clear and distortion free, the music envelopes the viewer throughout the sound space and the ambient subtle sounds are natural and never feel out of place and the fight scenes rumble with ferocity, especially the crowd cheers and sound effects that come through extremely well. This is an excellent reference quality track that will most likely have your neighbours pounding on your door to turn it down.
Optional subtitles are included in Traditional Chinese and English. The subtitles are 16x9 friendly and are a nice size on-screen. They are easy to read and feature no grammatical or spelling errors, however some of the subtitles disappear a fraction too quickly at times. Otherwise they were fine.

Extras

Edko have released this film with only a few extras that includes a featurette, a photo gallery and a handful of biographies. Below is a closer look at these supplements.

First up is "A Fearless Journey" a featurette which runs for 16 minutes 4 seconds and features interviews with the key cast and crew about the film, we also get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, the fights and choreography and story elements as well as a look at what wushu is, it's meaning and place in Chinese cinema and we finally hear it from Li that this is in fact his final martial arts film. Overall this is essentially an EPK fluff piece that glosses over the basics and nothing else but this clip is actually annoying considering it's narrated by the most grating narrator in the history of DVD extras!

A photo gallery is next and features 10 stills taken of the cast during the production of the film.

A series of cast and crew filmographies are also included and are for:

- Jet Li which includes 2 text pages.
- Shido Nakamura which includes 1 text page.
- Betty Sun which includes 1 text page.
- Yong Dong which includes 2 text pages.
- Collin Chou which includes 1 text page.
- Masato Harada which includes 1 text page.
- Director Ronny Yu which includes 2 text pages

Packaging

This DVD is packaged in an amaray case that is housed in a cardboard slip-cover.

Overall

Overall I was pleased to have finally seen this longer 'Director's Cut' release however the picture quality wasn't as great as I was expecting. An epic film such as this needs a perfect transfer and Edko provided an average transfer. Thankfully the soundtrack was a winner. Much like the R1 release this version also has very little by way of extras which is again disappointing to say the least, perhaps one day we'll get a decent Special Edition and considering this is Li's final martial arts film (and a good one at that) it certainly deserves a multi-disc treatment.

The Film: A+ Video: C+ Audio: A+ Extras: D+ Overall: C+

 


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