Jet Li as Huo Yuanjia
Shido Nakamura as Anno Tanaka
Sun Li as Moon
Yong Dong as Nong Jinsun
Hee Ching Paw as Yuankia’s Mother
Ting Leung as Lai
Yun Qu as Grandma
Nathan Jones as Hercules O’Brien
Brandon Rhea as German Fighter
Anthony De Longis as Spanish Fighter
Jean Claude Leuyer as English Boxer
Mike Leeder as Fight Referee
Jon T. Benn as American Businessman
John Paisley as English Businessman
Collin Chou as Yuanjia’s Father
Masato Harada as Mita
Directed by Ronny Yu
Part bio-pic, part sports film, part wuxia, “Fearless” melds the best parts of both genres and in the process makes something greater than the sum of its parts, commenting both on its genre and human nature in general, both as they are now and what they could aspire to be.
Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) is the greatest fighter in Tianjin but his prowess comes from pride and anger, and breeds arrogance. With a spectacular disregard for both his opponents’ and his own safety, he has bested every challenger and in the process reduced his worldview to a narrow short-term one that encompasses success in the ring (or in this case, on the platform) and nothing else. Competitors traditionally sign a “Death Waiver” before a fight both showing their courage (or bravado) and commitment, encouraging an anything-goes mentality that gradually seeps into real life.
Huo lives like a rock star — ignoring his mother and daughter, partying till all hours of the night with his entourage of students, and running up a huge bar bill he can’t actually pay (with the understanding that he may be an alcoholic) — and everyone knows how that story normally ends. When a rival master shows up, Huo quickly starts looking for a fight to protect his dominance and in a drunken rage instigates a bar brawl to avenge an insult. In one of the films most spectacular sequences — designed by Li’s “Unleashed” collaborator Yuen Woo-Ping — the fight quickly gets out of hand, destroying the restaurant (owned by Huo’s childhood friend), resulting in the master’s death. Though absolved of the legal responsibility by way of the Death Waiver, Huo isn’t absolved of the guilt, and for the first time, he begins to feel the weight of his actions, and the sweetness of victory turns to ashes in his mouth. When his entire family is killed in retaliation, Huo turns his back on revenge and instead leaves Tianjin in shame.
In the past few years, Li has become more and more of a polished actor, and Huo requires everything he has both as a martial artist and as an actor to pull off. “Fearless” is ultimately a film about vanquishing internal enemies, the kind that can’t be fought with kicks and punches. Li’s performance lacks some of the subtle nuance of “Unleashed” but makes up for that in range, moving from the heights of success and arrogance to the depths of loss and understanding. Li is much more adept at portraying the remorseful and enlightened Huo than the drunken lout version. He’s too likable to really show Huo as the @ssh*le he needs to be, except for the excellent restaurant fight where he finally lets his dark side loose.
Huo eventually wanders his way to Siam, where he is taken in by an old woman and her blind daughter (Sun Li). Working as a farmer for many years, Huo is able to contemplate where his life went wrong and realizes the truth about wushu — and in its way, all human endeavors — that his father tried to teach him but he couldn’t or wouldn’t understand; that the point of competition is not to prove your own strength or vanquish your foe, but to allow everyone involved to better themselves rather than squabbling over bragging rights that are ultimately illusory.
After several years in the wilderness, he returns to Tianjin to find it a burgeoning city, largely due to the influx of foreign interest and investment, and importantly the resulting marginalization of Chinese culture. Realizing what his country risks loosing, Huo travels to Shanghai to face the champions of the different countries installing themselves in his homeland and in the process becomes a symbol of Chinese national pride and a target for foreign interlopers who know a fractured China is a China they can control.
Ronny Yu (“Freddy vs. Jason”) directs with a fairly light hand, giving dramatic scenes a heft and weight equal to the bombast of the fight sequences without ever quite going overboard into self-mockery. The choreography is as good as everything we’ve come to expect from Woo-Ping, largely eschewing the elegant wire work of “The Matrix” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for a more down to earth version of wushu, though it certainly has its gravity defining moments. It doesn’t rewrite the book, it merely uses it to engage the story and is as thrilling to watch as any of his other work.
It’s weakened a bit, at least outside of China, by a slightly jingoistic attitude. To be fair, imperial powers from around the world did use China to their own advantage for a long time but in general in general foreigners are shown as invaders destroying Chinese culture with little rounding to make them seem like real people. There is an excellent exception to that in the form of Japanese challenger Tanaka (Shido Nakamura), who gives the strongest supporting performance in the film and one of the most memorable, despite not having a lot of screen time. His and Li’s conversation about the nature of tea is the philosophical heart of the movie and is as good as any fight scene in the film.
Both reveling in and repudiating the genre, “Fearless” doesn’t quite have the tragic emotional heft of other recent art wuxia, but makes up for it with a genuinely inspiring and important message that extends beyond what the film itself may have even been grasping for.