Enjoyable, polished if somewhat unremarkable wushu outing.
Now, with the possible exception of last year's interesting but flawed Unleashed, if you'd only been exposed to martial arts icon Jet Li's Western produced outings (and we'll include Hero in this category, for convenience if not accuracy's sake) you'd be forgiven for thinking the man has fewer emotions than the Terminator. Whether he's cast as an implacable criminal or expressionless secret agent, you can more or less guarantee that in any given scene he's going to look stoney-faced and stoic, typically while smoothly and effortlessly dismantling a small army down into their component molecules. Which is sort of strange, considering the sheer gleeful, charismatic displays of his Fong Sai Yuk days that brought him to fame. I mention all of this not merely to show that I am 'down with the old school' of Li films, as I believe the cooler kids of today would put it, but that this is another of those modern rarities, A Film Where Li Smiles At Some Point.
Set during the most recent and almost certainly final, barring an unlikely collapse of Communism, slump in Imperial Chinese fortunes around the turn of the twentieth century, with European powers and Japan strutting around as if they own the place. Indifferent to China's hurt national pride, Huo Yuan Jia (Li) takes up his father's quest to be the strongest fighter in Tianjin, gathering a crowd of ill-disciplined disciples thanks in part to his habit of boozing after a successful fight, and generally being something of a low-grade, irresponsible arsehole.
This doesn't go on forever, however, whatever. The a challenger to Huo's title is killed in combat, and the enraged son kills Huo's mother and daughter in revenge. Huo kills the kid in retaliatory vengeance. Through a haze of grief and puzzling editing, Huo staggers off, getting on a ship, getting off a ship, washing up in a small village near death. After being nursed back to health by a kindly, beautiful and blind girl, Huo contents himself with working the fields with the peasantry and marvelling in their goodness and power, which should in no way be taken as a corollary to Mao's views prior to the Autumn Harvest Uprising. Oh no.
After many happy months of this, news again reaches Huo that China's national pride continues to be besmirched. It would be a rather dull end to the film if Huo merely shrugged his shoulders and ignored it, so in response he heads back to the cities and establishes the Jin Wu Sports Federation to enable strong-willed Chinese to train in peace and honour for their country. The exceedingly evil government representatives of Western powers and Japan decide that this rather gets in the way of their efforts to break Chinese national spirits and challenge Huo to a distinctly unfair fight in a tournament designed to take care of Huo once and for all. Yay! Fighting!
It's the fighting we're all here for, isn't it? The latest in the line of big budget, glossy wushu outings triggered by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's mildly surprising crossover appeal sees Ronny Yu, veteran of the scene with The Bride With White Hair return to the Asian end of things after a period Stateside directing unexpectedly halfway decent horrors Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason. As I've said in the past, he also wins bonus points for having directed a film with the literal translation of Rumbling Sky Dragon Tiger Meeting. Just like to mention that every now and again. Anyhoo, the bottom line of all of this dribbling is that he knows how to handle this sort of thing, especially when he's got Woo-ping Yuen on Second Unit duty.
All of which is to say that there's enough talent both behind and in front of the camera to ensure that this was likely to be at worst a solid, decent outing, and don't you know it, Fearless is a solid, decent outing. Sure it's not as pretty a film as Hero, but it's still very pretty. The action isn't quite as jaw-dropping as Hero, but it's still awfully impressive. It's not as ... well, you get the idea by this point.
I'm not sure if it's my overactive imagination or a sign that these films are now coming from mainland China as opposed to Hong Kong, but there seems to be something of a Communist Party-line subtext to this film. Referring to their political stance, you understand, not to the short-lived and ill-advised phone chat line which was never likely to gain a foothold in the premium rate telephone market.
China, like any sensible nation, wants your money. Despite the current system of closet capitalism, the official line remains that our Capitalist principles espoused by our barbarian leaders is corrupt decadent and evil. This explains, I believe, why this common or garden fighters in the stacked tournament, particularly the likably honourable Tanaka (Shido Nakamura) behave in manners befitting of gentlemen, their leaders including the despicable Mita (Masato Harada) are such pantomime caricatures that I wouldn't be surprised if they popped off between scenes to tie women to train tracks while twirling their fine mustachios.
Bleh. That's a tangent at any rate. The bottom line is that Fearless is an extremely competent, enjoyable wushu outing that has very little wrong with it. The plot is perhaps somewhat staid compared with what you're accustomed to, it's fantastic take on a largely true story lacking the calculated grandeur of its stablemates, but it isn't without its own charms. Every other element is at worst 'pretty good' with occasional trips into 'really good', so while it might lack the explosive K.O. punch truly great martial arts cinema can dole out, at worst it'll still kick your ass pretty badly.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Nathan Jones (Hercules O'Brien)
Masato Harada (Mr. Mita)
Shido Nakamura (Anno Tanaka)