Fearless: fun but I’ve seen it somewhere before

Last night, it being Orange Wednesday and all, I went to see what is promised to be Jet Li’s last martial arts movie: Fearless. How could I resist?

Fearless is set in Shanghai at the turn of the 20th Century. Li plays Huo Yuan Jia (the film’s Chinese title), founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. A martial arts master, Huo Yuan Jia ends up fighting Westerners and Japanese in a demonstration contest to prove that the Chinese are not “the weak men of the East”, as the Westerners suggested. But most of the movie is a flashback to his life, showing how he became a famous fighter, how his life fell apart through poor choices and mistakes, and how he was able to pull himself back together again.

There are essentially three intents of Fearless:

  1. To prove Jet Li can act and therefore should be considered for future dramatic roles that don’t involve wu shu
  2. To prove that China was a mess in the early 20th century and that the People’s Republic of China was therefore a very good idea indeed
  3. To recapture some of the things that made Jet Li’s earlier Hong Kong films so good in order to give him a good send-off.

In particular, Fearless is very similar to Li’s real break-out movie, Fist of Legend, a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. Set in the same place and more or less the same time as Fearless, Fist of Legend looked at the escalating tensions between the Chinese and the Japanese at the time, and in comparison to the really rather mean-spirited original, was an excellent piece of work: if you only ever watch one proper Jet Li martial arts movie, that’s the one to watch.

Just like Fist of Legend, Fearless is very careful to be equitable to all the different nationalities represented: there are good and bad westerners, Japanese and Chinese. None is shown to be superior or inferior, only more or less skilled and more or less wise. In particular, each nation’s true champion is shown to be honourable and gracious in defeat. It’s a noble aim that you wish was mirrored by Western films.

The big difference is in the direction. Fearless aims to be as big and as sweeping an epic as Hero and Crouching Tiger, while keeping the traditional elements of a Hong Kong martial arts movie. It manages that rather well, although it’s clear that Chinese graphics houses have a little way to go before they can do CG as well as the likes of Framestore and ILM.

Li does a reasonable job with a mostly dramatic part, although it’s clear from the amount of wirework in the movie that his age-induced move out of martial arts is a wise decision. Michelle Yeoh… isn’t in it because her part was cut out to make the film shorter. In fact, if they’d cut out say five or ten minutes from the middle, I’d say it would be an almost perfect martial arts film. It’s just a tad too long.

Worth the money: give it a try while it’s still on.