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.
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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.