Jet Li's Fearless

With the release of Jet Li's Fearless, Li claims to be retiring from martial arts movies.  Supposedly, he was a bit sick of the constant violence and negative messaging within these films.  This may explain the rah-rah, feel-good messages of hope and unity within Fearless and Hero.  Another reason may be that Li (Unleashed, Hero) is aging.  He is still an imposing martial artist, and can probably do more than 99% of his peers, but nevertheless, it is time to slow down a bit (he's still not old, but should slow down a bit).  The last reason is one that most people will probably not realize - these films aren't that good.  Aside from Hero, many of his action films, especially his Asian ones, are a bit brainless.  Granted, they are made for the Asian market, and the martial arts are spectacular, but the acting and stories leave much to be desired.  And as great a martial artist as Li is, he has not yet proven that he is a decent actor.

The setting of Fearless is 1910 China.  The West is slowly imposing itself on the middle kingdom.  Li is Huo Yuanjia, a historical figure who began life as a brash fighter.  All he wanted to do was become the champion of his village.  To him, martial arts were about glory, and nothing else.  He fights his way to the top, then finds himself disgusted with everything.  Huo goes to a village, where he learns about humility, and falls in love with a blind woman named Moon (Li Su).  Basically, this is Cars in China.  The worst part of this entire sequence is that it is deathly boring.  Yes, Huo must learn about what is important in life, but when it comes with Li acting a bit goofy, and even effeminate at times, it is definitely not worth the time spent.  Director Ronny Yu (Freddy vs. Jason, Formula 51) and screenwriter Chris Chow spend time developing a character that is not interesting, acted by a man who is not that good at acting.

All this makes Fearless seem a bit too much like propaganda.  Li, through Huo, expounds on the importance of love and unity, and how China must band together if it wants to be successful.  Oh, and after all the love talk, Huo proceeds to kick the butts of Westerners and the Japanese.  This dichotomy is far too obvious, making the movie feel like a bad afterschool special.  It's like Hero without the pretty colors.  Or like Pavilion of Women, a film that few people saw, and hopefully, fewer people will make the effort to see.  Li's acting is downright bizarre at times, and coupled with the use of a crazy bum (sadly, a standard in Asian films - that or the shrill woman) makes the movie seem a bit cheesy.  It also looks like some of the action sequences are sped up, and the dubbing is haphazard at points.

It's a shame, because the fights really are breathtaking.  Of course, this only applies when they last.  Once Huo returns, he enters a contest that is meant to humiliate the Chinese.  Foreign powers will have their champions savagely beat Chinese opponents.  It works until Huo enters the ring.  At this point, they decide to rig a match.  Huo will face four of the best fighters from around the world in succession.  They deem that this is enough to defeat him.  Within the first few minutes of the film, he easily wins the first three fights.  The only fights that seem to last more than a few minutes are with the hulking Hercules O'Brien (Nathan Jones, Troy, Jackie Chan's First Strike) and the final, brutal fight with Anno Tanaka (Shido Nakamura, Yamato, All About My Dog).  These fights are amazing examples of martial arts wizardry.  They are technically precise, and violently beautiful.  But to get to them, one must sit through a dull plot and bad acting.

Haro Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 43 minutes, Mandarin, English, and Japanese with English subtitles, Rated PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout.

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