×

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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Harvey Weinstein female juror

    Novelist Who Wrote About Predatory Men Stays on Harvey Weinstein Jury

    A novelist who has an upcoming book about predatory older men in New York will remain on the Harvey Weinstein jury, despite vociferous objections from the defense. Juror #11 showed up to opening statements on Wednesday, and sat through the full day of trial. Weinstein’s defense had argued last Friday that she should be removed [...]

  • Ride Like A Girl

    Australia Box Office Drops 2% in 2019

    Cinema box office in Australia dipped by 2% in 2019 to an annual total of A$1.23 billion, or $841 million, according to data from the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia. That was the country’s third highest figure in local currency terms, but it also shows the theatrical industry to be rangebound since 2015. Australian-made [...]

  • Harvey WeinsteinHarvey Weinstein court hearing, New

    Hairdresser Will Be Star Witness at Weinstein Trial

    She was raised on a dairy farm in Washington state. She left home as a teenager, fleeing a troubled childhood. At 25, she came to Los Angeles to become an actress. She went on auditions, got cast in a few commercials — but nothing much beyond that. In recent years, her primary job was cutting [...]

  • Jack Kehoe dead

    Jack Kehoe, 'Serpico' and 'Midnight Run' Actor, Dies at 85

    Jack Kehoe, best known for his roles in the Al Pacino-led crime drama “Serpico” and “Midnight Run,” died on Jan. 10 at a nursing home in Los Angeles. He was 85. The actor suffered a debilitating stroke in 2015, which left him inactive in recent years. Kehoe also appeared in several Academy Award-winning films during [...]

  • The Last Full Measure

    'The Last Full Measure': Film Review

    The story of William Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who risked his life in Vietnam to aid his comrades, as well as the decades-later efforts of fellow vets to see him posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, is undeniably moving — which goes a long way toward explaining how Todd Robinson enlisted an [...]

  • The Grand Grandmaster

    Hong Kong and China Box Office to Take Separate Directions at Chinese New Year

    In the more than six months that protest movements have rocked Hong Kong, a whole range of business sectors have become color-coded, as both Beijing-loyal blue elements and yellow pro-democracy forces have weaponized the economy. Companies on the front line include leading bank HSBC, airline Cathay Pacific and even the subway operator MTRC. Effects range [...]

  • Parasite

    'Parasite' Puts Modern Spin on Film's Long History of Haves vs Have-Nots

    Every filmmaker hopes to make a good movie, but sometimes the impact is bigger than expected. Neon’s “Parasite” is one example of a 2019 film hitting a nerve. Writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s film has been praised for its originality and daring shifts in tone. It also has resonance due to its subject matter: the gap [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content