Original Review Date: 9/21/06
The last twenty minutes of Fearless are beautiful and the most touching combat/drama I may have ever seen before in a martial arts movie. It is that exhilarating and complete. The ending is almost on the same level as that found in Braveheart when William Wallace screams: “Freedom!” The difference in Fearless is that what Jet Li’s character, Huo Yuanjia, is thinking and feeling in those moments is shown on his face and through memory, it’s never verbalized.
Fearless loosely tells the story of real life martial artists Huo Yuanjia, the founder and for all intents, the spiritual and physical model for all the aspiring students within the Jin Wu Sports Federation (Chin Woo Athletic Association in real life). During the film, the viewer follows Yuanjia from when he is a small boy (watching as his father practices, trains his own students and enters competitions) all the way up till Yuanjia is in his early forties. The main storyline in Fearless isn’t simply the evolution of a fighter and his skill but the evolution of the human spirit and humanity. What Yuanjia learns by the end of the film is what his father had already learned at the beginning of it. Just because you have power and are the best doesn’t mean you have to kill to prove it. It was the same lesson that Oscar Schindler tried in vain to teach The Commandant in Schindler’s List. When Yuanjia undergoes a spiritual awakening in the latter portion of Fearless, all the fighting victories of the past, all of the awards and trophies he’s won and accumulated become meaningless to him as does the need to continually prove himself to his contemporaries. When Yuanjia does return to the competition ring, he is no longer fighting for himself but for his country and national pride.
Director Ronny Yu’s precious control and ability with the camera in Fearless was completely unexpected as were the shots he created and the movie he captured. Who knew that the director and one of the chief butchers of the fantastic Freddy vs. Jason screenplay had these abilities and skills under his belt as a director? This is akin to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting in Capote. You have never seen Yu direct better than he has in this film.
Internet savvy cinephiles that have heard of Fearless under its current USA and international titles: Huo Yuan Jia, Spirit, Legend of a Fighter (the English translation), etc., already know that this film came out in Europe and Asian theaters almost half a year ago and that four or five different non-Region 1 versions are available for purchase on DVD (most don’t come with English subtitles however) and that Fearless was cut down from it’s original 150 minutes to the more theater friendly 105 minutes, excluding scenes with Michelle Yeoh and Somluck Kamsing.
Ronny Yu’s Fearless is a movie that gets better and better as it progresses until the viewer gets to its razor point (its last twenty minutes) on which the film balances itself effortlessly and never falters. I’ve seen very few martial arts movies that didn’t falter in their third act for one reason or another. Fearless isn’t one of them. If this is truly Jet Li’s last purely martial arts film, he left the genre with a shattering and unforgettable bang.