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Film Review

Fearless (2006)

IMDB link
Running time: 1h 44min
Directed by Ronny Yu
Written by Chris Chow, Richard Epcar (dubbed version), Chi-long To
Starring Jet Li, Li Sun, Yong Dong

Fearless tells the almost mythical tale of legendary Chinese Martial Arts master Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910), and does it well enough to be entertaining, at least for those who find enjoyment out of people kicking and punching each other. Starring Jet Li, who is one of the most well-known “movie star” martial artists, Fearless is a historical kung fu flick that has enough story wrapped around its multiple fight scenes to work overall as not “just” a martial arts movie; while the impressive fight choreography and Jet Li’s name are obviously the main draws of the film, the production value is relatively high in other respects as well. The film is not historically accurate, and does not shy away from clichés, however, and in part it feels like Chinese nationalistic propaganda, featuring some shallow black and white (or red, white, and blue in one instance) depictions of the foreign forces plaguing China during the late 19th and early 20th century.

“Come at me, bruh”

Not much is apparently known for certain about the historical person Huo Yuanjia: there are multiple versions of events that might have happened or not, some of which are portrayed in the film. Check this historian’s review for more information if you would like to know more. Given how many movies there have been made of Huo Yuanjia, and how he is represented in Fearless, I can somewhat safely assume he is an important figure in Chinese history, and still an important symbol. [Story spoilers:] The story of Fearless is simple: Huo Yunjia aspires to be the best of the best of fighters, but his hubris grows at the same rate as his prowess. The challenges that he faces outside of the ring prove to be tougher than flesh and blood opponents, stemming from his own inadequacies; all-consuming ambition, arrogance, excessive drinking, and living above his means. Misfortune coupled with these failings leads to him losing everything and becoming a broken man. After a period of suffering, he finds the will to live again, and eventually challenges the champions of the foreign forces to a symbolical exhibition match. [/Story spoilers end]

There is a story and emotional scenes that the fights are built around

I like that Huo was not portrayed as a paragon of virtue from the very beginning, but at the same time I feel that the story is overly simplified. Maybe I am wrong to expect something more complex from a martial arts film, but the historical setting and production value could have resulted in a more satisfying cinematic experience with some finetuning of the script and direction. When given screentime, the foreigners are, for the most part, portrayed as arrogant, unsportsmanlike and/or foolish (with the one notable exception being the Japanese fighter played by Shidô Nakamura). I would accept this more readily if it all were not quite so over the top comical: the villains of the film are essentially cartoon characters. I should note, however, that my negative sentiment is exacerbated by the fact that I have now seen Fearless multiple times. At times the film feels cynically calculated and emotionally manipulative. But overall it can not be that bad, since, as I just admitted, I have willingly seen it multiple times.

As the film shows here, there are many ways to fight, some less successful than others

The acting is adequate; I was not overly impressed but also not appalled. Jet Li I think fits well in the main role, mainly for his physical capabilities, of course, but he is not offensively bad as an actor. I found Masato Harada’s, who plays a corrupt and avaricious Japanese businessman, performance comical, but I suspect the script and the direction are to blame here; he had a similar role in The Last Samurai (2003), and I think that he did better there. Other than that, those actors who are given screentime do well enough. As already stated, the production value is quite high so there is not much to complain about on the technical side of things, other than the CGI which I have already complained enough about. The film showcases some nice locations in the middle parts, and overall looks quite good.

The fight scenes are varied, it’s not just fists and feet that are used
Big angry dumb crush pip-squeak! This fight most likely never happened in reality, but it makes for a memorable scene due to the comical size difference of the two men

In my review of Ong-Bak (2003), I claimed that Fearless has better stunts/fight scenes than Ong-Bak, but now, after having relatively recently rewatched both films, I am not so sure about that. The problem with the fight choreography in Fearless is that much of it relies on CGI and other shenanigans, and the CGI especially does not look that good anymore. Additionally, the fight scenes seem to be sped up which does not look good. As it is ostensibly a historical film about a real person, the action scenes should in my opinion have been more grounded in reality and the laws of physics. Fearless is not realistic, but it is also not as offensive to the advocates of realism as something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986). But I do acknowledge that when the story is about a legend, some lack of realism can be forgiven; the lack of realism is something that might not bother the viewer at all. And while the fights are not perhaps the best in the business, so to speak, they are still quite good, and I appreciated the bone-crunching brutality of them.

Who said that only black men can jump?

Fearless is a film that should be fairly enjoyable to most fans of action and/or kung fu films, but which is also quite basic and shallow despite the effort put into masking what it really is. It has perhaps aged poorly in a relatively short span of time due to the use of CGI, but it is still perfectly watchable despite of that. If you watch it, watch it for the fight scenes, and do not expect too much from the story, and you might even be pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 3

Would I want to rewatch this film? I would not rule it out, but not soon

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