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Fearless
cast: Jet Li, Shido Nakamura, Li 'Betty' Sun, Yong Dong, and Hee Ching Paw

director: Ronny Yu

104 minutes (n/r) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Rogue / Universal NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
This is supposed to be the "final martial arts epic" from popular kung fu star Jet Li. Whether than means he's retired from the movies remains to be seen, of course, as he's not especially noted for his thespian abilities, and so hasn't got many talents to fall back on. But he's certainly a world-class fighter (just checkout the sheer ferocity of his performance in violent gangster melodrama Unleashed), although this stately adventure, inspired by a true story, offers more than just rudimentary chop-schlock material collated by genre specialist Ronny Yu.

Basically, Fearless (aka: Huo Yuan Jia) is a variation of the familiar Rocky meets Gladiator plot, blessed with a richly evocative turn-of-the-century China milieu. Jet Li plays Huo Yuanjia, a sickly child who dreams of rescuing his family's pride, lost by his principled father who refused to kill his opponent in a wu-shu bout to decide the town's best kung fu master. Years later, we find Huo finally getting a chance to become the district's top fighter, but he's now a widower, and has a young daughter to consider. Predictably, this situation is a human tragedy just waiting to happen, and yet the heartbreaking outcome of a reckless decision and retaliatory murders is nonetheless powerfully depicted here, all the more affecting because of the director Yu's creative choices of what to show, and what not to show us (let's not get hysterical and fall for the hype of this 'unrated edition' DVD, as there's precious little bloodshed), and Li's studied underplaying as fallen hero Huo.

Although the body of the film isn't broken by its flashback structure, this overused Hollywood framing (I can mentally picture the studio execs insisting Jet Li movies have to open with big fight scenes!) does bruise its legs and weakens the pace it can move at later. Admittedly, the pairing of Li's unique skill-set with the exemplary services of the industry's most famous choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping, ensures the frequent action set pieces presented here are undeniably dynamic and spectacular. Naturally, having its origins in fact, the combat of this genuinely intriguing story is most satisfying when Li and his various foes are not relying heavily on the fantasy visuals of wirework stunts. Yes, there are some gravity-defying antics here, and the film cannot avoid getting into the firing line of that commonplace critical assertion about all martial arts flicks being a type of fantasy, anyway, but it's mostly realistic, without the comic-book style excesses preferred by first-rank Asian filmmakers like Tsui Hark (Seven Swords, Zu Warriors, etc).
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