Theatrical Review: Jet Li
has touted Fearless as his last martial arts film, at least in his studied style of Wushu. In its initial run in East Asia, the film out-grossed both Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers. Within those facts we have surefire proof that the weaker films will always survive, no matter what continent, country, state, or township you're in.
The film centers on a challenge set upon famed martial artist Huo Yuanjia (Li), the famed master of Wushu, in the early 1900s. After facing three British masters of weaponry, Huo must prepare for the challenge of Tanaka (Shidou Nakamura
), the Japanese champion. Politicians have schemed to make sure that Tanaka won't lose, but don't count Hou out quite yet. Article continues below
A bulk of Fearless is a flashback to a brash, egotistical Hou as he learns his art and finds humility at a small farming commune before becoming the slow speaking master he is during the first and last sections of the film. Li's ability as an actor has always been in his way of brooding and being able to bring bravado without saying much. Here, however, director Ronny Yu
tries to turn Li into a drama machine, specifically in the flashbacks, giving him much more dialogue than he needs to spell out what's going on.
In the hands of a great director like Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-hsien, imagery and poetry would have been able to convey the turbulence of the time period and the shifts in personality with more conviction and sincerity. Important moments in Hou's life are instead used like any melodramatic fodder (example: the death of one of Hou's masters due to his cockiness) and thus we don't feel any uniqueness in this character's struggle and his need for independence.
As many of you are wondering, yes, the fight scenes are fantastic and thanks to little-to-no wirework or special effects, they retain a natural feel that helps ground the film. As an action film, it succeeds on all levels, especially the final fight with Tanaka, which admittedly is almost worth the price of admission. The problem comes in the fact that the drama surrounding these fights doesn't hold any weight, and therefore the battles have the feeling of spectacle rather than radiating an emotive core. Nothing here has even the tarnished look or the radiant beauty of the fight scenes in House of Flying Daggers, and therefore Hou's legend seems distanced from us in general. Instead of getting the feeling that we're watching a hero of the people, we feel that we are watching any other Jet Li film where he does things that your local yoga instructor would consider impossible. It's no way to treat a master.