Is this really Jet Li’s farewell to the martial arts genre? Call me a cynic, but I’m doubtful. I’m doubtful because Li’s claims that he’s quitting the genre – due to the perversion of the whole concept of martial arts by the fans — is just too much the same as the theme of Jet Li’s Fearless. I’m skeptical because the whole retirement notion feels like a gimmick to get viewers to go see a film that is otherwise largely unremarkable. I’m suspicious because there are too many loopholes in the phrasing of the announcement (there seems plenty of room for movies like Kiss of the Dragon, Unleashed and/or — God forbid — The One). I’m unconvinced because, quite honestly, Jet Li is a fighter first, a personality second and an actor third, i.e. don’t be expecting Jet Li’s Hamlet any time soon.
That said, it may well be time for the 43-year-old Li to re-invent himself, because his age is definitely starting to show (it doesn’t help that his father in played by an actor, Collin Chou, six years his junior). Taken on its own merits as another Jet Li martial arts movie, Fearless never really gets past the level of pretty enjoyable. The attempt to create an epic along the lines of Hero fails because the story of martial-arts master Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910) simply isn’t, well, enough of an epic, and it’s completely devoid of the sense of the mythic that marks Hero.
It’s tempting to blame director Ronny Yu. After all, the most stylish and atmospheric scene in Fearless — a fight with scimitars in a restaurant, punctuated with flashes of lightning — feels more than a little like Freddy and Jason squaring off in Yu’s Freddy Vs. Jason. And there’s no denying that Yu has photographed and edited the fight scenes in a manner that’s hardly conducive to an appreciation of the fighters’ actual moves (imagine a Fred Astaire dance number broken up into a riot of rapid editing). Some of this — and the heavy reliance on very obvious wire-work — may be a concession to the star’s age, but it makes the action taste like wax fruit coming so soon after the unadorned antics of Tony Jaa in The Protector. But the real problem with the film is less the direction than the story and the overall approach.
Mixing the “historical” approach of Hero with the conventions of the more standard martial arts format simply doesn’t work. Sure, it’s a convention of the genre, but staging a fight on a platform 30 feet in the air so that 90 percent of the assembled crowd get a splendid view of some wood flooring (and the prospect of a body plummeting earthward) just looks silly in a movie that wants to be taken seriously.
The story itself is admissible in its aims — essentially that beating people to death isn’t the path to enlightenment — but it gets to its message via the most cliched route imaginable. It requires Li to portray a character who is — to be blunt about it — an utter jackass for nearly two-thirds of the film, at which point his egotistical butt-kicking comes home to roost in an extreme manner, plunging him into near-suicidal despair. Salvation comes via a blind girl (Betty Sun) and a stint (according to the script) of several years working on a rice farm, whereupon he returns to the real world with his newfound belief in less drastic competition. Fine, but let’s face it, the plot about the young man with the swollen head who learns his lesson and reforms had whiskers on it long before the movies learned to talk.
It’s not that the film isn’t entertaining, it’s that it’s simply nothing special. It is interesting — in light of the death threats tossed at the Chinese actresses by some of their countrymen for “disgracing” themselves by portraying Japanese characters in Memoirs of a Geisha — that the film includes a completely honorable and admirable Japanese character (Shido Nakamura) as Li’s final opponent, but it’s not enough to distinguish the film. Rated PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke