×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Fearless

Already ballyhooed as Jet Li's final picture featuring traditional Chinese martial arts, "Fearless" is a rather conventional costume biopic that still manages to pack a satisfying emotional punch by its final reel. A sizable hit since late January in East Asia, pic is likely to face a harder battle in the West due to its paucity of really eye-popping action.

With:
Huo Yuanjia - Jet Li Yueci - Betty Sun Nong Jinsun - Dong Yong Anno Tanaka - Shidou Nakamura Huo's father - Collin Chou Huo's mother - Paw Hee-ching O'Brien - Nathan Jones Mita - Masato Harada

Already ballyhooed as Jet Li’s final picture featuring traditional Chinese martial arts (wushu), “Fearless” is a rather conventional costume biopic that still manages to pack a satisfying emotional punch by its final reel. A sizable hit since late January in East Asia, where it outgrossed such titles as “Crouching Tiger,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” in its opening frame, pic is likely to face a harder battle in the West due to its paucity of really eye-popping action. Focus Features’ genre arm, Rogue Pictures, distribs Stateside Aug. 4.

Biopic of famed mainland martial artist Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910) — founder of the Jingwu school that Bruce Lee was a member of in “Fist of Fury” (1972), and Li himself in the 1994 remake, “Fist of Legend” — plays fast and loose with the few known facts of Huo’s life.

Yet its almost old-fashioned, low-tech qualities (only a modicum of wire-fu and no flashy visual f/x), married to ultra-smooth production values, give the pic a refreshing sincerity compared with most of today’s cynical, CGI-heavy actioners, both East and West.

That sincerity, which stems from Li’s own background as a wushu artist, also chimes with film’s theme of a fighter brought low by youthful arrogance but who reinvents himself as a champion of Chinese values in a rapidly Westernizing era.

However, as a grand final statement by Li on the art of wushu, “Fearless” falls short. Last-minute cutting by 40 minutes has robbed the picture of much detail of Huo’s training as well as the styles and philosophy he espoused. Two thesps have also completely disappeared from the pic: Thai boxer Somluck Kamsing and action star Michelle Yeoh. (Kamsing’s fight vs. Li survives in prints for the Thai market.)

Story begins in Shanghai, in 1910, as Huo takes on four champion fighters in a public tournament. After whipping three Westerners (pros Jean-Claude Leuyer, Brandon Rhea, Anthony De Longis), Huo gets ready for his biggest challenge, Japanese champ Tanaka (kabuki actor Shidou Nakamura).

Plot flashes back 30 years to Huo as a kid in Tianjin, northern China, where he’s forbidden to train by his martial artist dad (Collin Chou, from “The Matrix” pics II and III), so does so on the sly. Flash forward 20 years, to 1900, and Huo is now bent on becoming Tianjin’s numero uno fighter. Pic’s first big set piece, a neatly staged contest on a vertiginously high platform, sees Huo victorious, though his best friend, Nong (Dong Yong), cautions him to ease up on the continuous fighting.

Li’s outgoing perf in these early scenes — with a gratingly brash delivery — is very different from his usual restrained screen persona, and helmer Ronny Yu makes the most of the thesp’s limited range by keeping the story moving and surrounding him with flavorsome actors.

At the halfway mark, film briefly turns much darker, as Huo’s growing arrogance leads to the death of one master fighter and Nong’s abandonment of him as a friend.

By-the-numbers plot then follows Huo as he travels to Southeast Asia, discovers humility among some rice farmers, tweaks the heart of a blind peasant girl (Betty Sun) and eventually returns to China a changed man. Fight vs. Tanaka closes the movie on an elevated note.

Though Li (now 42) looks far too old in the early scenes, he brings a quiet dignity to the latter half of the pic that’s matched by Sun in the (basically cliched but surprisingly effective) Southeast Asian idyll and by Dong, who almost steals the movie as Huo’s one-time best friend.

Fight choreography by vet Yuen Woo-ping is satisfying without being jaw-dropping and follows the retro trend pioneered by Tony Jaa in “Ong Bak” and “Tom-Yum-Goong.” Tech package is highly confident and detailed, especially art director Kenneth Mak’s burnished sets. Pic has a Western feel to its pacing and editing (by Virginia Katz and Richard Learoyd) that’s very smooth, despite the last-minute shearing.

Fearless

China - Hong Kong

Production: A Rogue Pictures (in U.S.) release of a China Film Group (China)/Elite Group Enterprises (Hong Kong) presentation of a China Film Group Beijing Film Studio, Xing He Investment production. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., New York.) Produced by Yang Buting, Jet Li. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Li. Co-executive producers, Jiang Tao, Bill Kong, Ronny Yu. Directed by Ronny Yu. Screenplay, Wang Bin, Chris Chow, Christine To, Li Feng.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Poon Hang-seng; editors, Virginia Katz, Richard Learoyd; music, Mei Linmao; art director, Kenneth Mak; costume designer, Thomas Chong; sound (Dolby Digital), Wu Lala; martial arts director, Yuen Woo-ping. Reviewed on videodisc, London, March 22, 2006. Running time: 103 MIN.

With: Huo Yuanjia - Jet Li Yueci - Betty Sun Nong Jinsun - Dong Yong Anno Tanaka - Shidou Nakamura Huo's father - Collin Chou Huo's mother - Paw Hee-ching O'Brien - Nathan Jones Mita - Masato HaradaWith: Anthony De Longis, Jean-Claude Leuyer, Brandon Rhea, Mike Leeder. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Roman Polanski extradition

    Academy Responds to Roman Polanski: 'Procedures Were Fair and Reasonable'

    UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has responded to a lawsuit from expelled director Roman Polanski that claimed he was unfairly expelled from the industry organizaton. “The procedures taken to expel Mr. Polanski were fair and reasonable. The Academy stands behind its decision as appropriate,” a spokesperson said. Film director Roman Polanski [...]

  • Lorraine Warren dead

    Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigator Who Inspired 'The Conjuring,' Dies at 92

    Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator and demonologist whose life inspired franchises like “The Conjuring” and “The Amityville Horror,” has died. She was 92. Warren’s son-in-law Tony Spera confirmed the news. Spera said on Facebook, “She died peacefully in her sleep at home.” He continued, “She was a remarkable, loving, compassionate and giving soul. To quote Will [...]

  • THE EXORCIST

    'Exorcist' Star Max Von Sydow Doesn't Let Age Define His Roles

    Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today. In the 1950s, von Sydow had [...]

  • 'Changing the Game' Documentary

    Watch the First Trailer for Trans Documentary 'Changing the Game' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Another hurdle for trans rights could quite literally be the track and field hurdle. Transgender student athletes are put in the spotlight in the forthcoming documentary “Changing the Game,” set to premiere at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Variety has the world premiere of the doc’s first teaser trailer, which gives an in-depth look into the [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Box Office

    Box Office: 'Curse of La Llorona' Conjures $2.8 Million on Thursday Night

    “The Curse of La Llorona,” the latest entry in Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Conjuring” universe, conjured $2.75 million from Thursday preview showings, while “Breakthrough,” a faith-based offering from Fox-Disney, brought in $1.5 million from its second day of screenings. “La Llorona’s” haul tops recent horror counterparts “Pet Sematary” and “Escape Room,” which each took [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content