Fearless AKA Jet Li's Fearless AKA Huo Yuan Jia
R1 - America - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (4th January 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 flickā€¦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, I was also pleased that the film was well paced and with a run time of around 104 minutes it didn't overstay its welcome. "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.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.40:1 this anamorphic widescreen image is stunning and I would certainly consider this reference quality. The image is sharp and crisp with colors displaying pitch perfect contrast, blacks are deep and bold and I could not spot any compression noise, edge-enhancement or any other annoying print flaws or authoring flaws. Overall this is a beautiful transfer.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included, the first in the film's original language Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 and the second dubbed in English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. For the purposes of this review I chose to view the film in its original Mandarin. Since this is an epic action film the sound has been matched perfectly for it, this 5.1 number is rather aggressive with surround activity quite high, especially during the action sequences. The track is totally immersive with the combination of the action sounds and the score. Dialogue was clear and distortion free and the only thing that could possibly improve on this track is perhaps a DTS ES mix or to take it a step further DTS HD.
Optional subtitles are included in English, English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.

Extras

Universal have released this film with only a few extras that includes a featurette, a single deleted scene and a handful of bonus trailers. Below is a closer look at these supplements.

First up we have a deleted scene which runs for 6 minutes 47 seconds, in this extended clip we see the seasons change while Huo Yuanjia is in the countryside, this scene takes place roughly in the middle of the film, while planting rice the villagers are upset that a local child is being punished by another village. They all go to save the child and Huo decides to take the beating in the place of the young boy.

Next 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!

Rounding out the extras are a collection of start-up trailers that can be skipped, they include:

- "Balls of Fury" which runs for 1 minute 2 seconds.
- "Hott Fuzz" which runs for 41 seconds.
- "American Pie Presents The Naked Mile" which runs for 2 minutes 30 seconds.
- "The Black Dahlia" which runs for 31 seconds.

Packaging

This DVD is packaged in an amaray case that is housed in a cardboard slip-cover. This DVD also features the option to view the original theatrical cut version of the film or the unrated cut of the film.

Overall

Overall I was rather disappointed with this DVD release, while the picture and sound are fine it's the extras that let this disc down, considering that this is Li's final martial arts film I believe that Universal has missed an opportunity to have done something special that fans would appreciate such as an audio commentary or even the deleted sub-plot featuring Michele Yeoh which amounts to around 30 minutes of footage, why wasn't that included in the first place? But alas all we get this is less than stellar collection of forgettable extras.

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

 


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