Martial artist Jet Li decided to retire from making Wushu films. At the age of forty-two years old and after making Wushu films for twenty-five years, Li had come to the conclusion that his body was done with the rigors and wear and tear accumulated on his body in his long and storied film career. Li was also dissatisfied with the way audiences viewed his Wushu films. Wushu is a martial arts discipline that is intended to deliver peace through combat; the word translates to "Peace." It is not a format for revenge and unnecessary violence. To conclude the chapter of his life that was focused on films based upon his style of martial arts; Li wanted to make a film that showed the true meaning and ideologies behind Wushu and pay tribute to one of the great legends of Wushu.
In "Fearless," Li embodies the real-life Chinese hero, Huo Yuanjia. Yuanjia battled foreign fighters and brawlers during the turn of the nineteenth century when Chinese were slanderously called "Sick Men of the East." Yunjia battled adversaries from around the globe in an effort to bring respect and honor back to his people, who were being invaded by Western missionaries and Western culture. Yuanjia battled inner torment and pain after fatally wounding a rival when he was younger under false premise. The motion picture is loosely based upon the life story and fight history of Huo Yuanjia. It is not historically accurate, and the film has come under some fire from Yuanjia's grandchildren and great grandchildren; as the film depicts Yuanjia as not having any living descendents.
As a child, a young Yuanjia suffers from asthma and yearns to learn his fathers Wushu technique. His father (Collin Chou) prefers his son to spend his time practicing calligraphy. Yuanjia is determined and has his friend Nong Jinson write calligraphy, while he emulates his father. Idolizing his father, he is crushed when his father apparently loses a match against another martial artist in the town, and the father of a boy who taunts and ridicules the undersized Yuanjia. After his father's death, an older Yuanjia (Jet Li) becomes a formidable martial artist and rises among the ranks and desperately seeks to become the town's "champion." He amasses a faithful, yet greedy following that takes advantage of Yuanjia's drinking and unselfishness, much to the dismay of his longtime friend Jinson (Yong Dong), who now runs a profitable restaurant.
One day, one of Yuanjia's followers arrives and is badly beaten. The reigning champion of Tianjin, Qin Lee is responsible and is present at Jinson's restaurant celebrating his birthday. A greatly angered Yuanjia instigates a fight to the death with Qin Lee and defeats his primary rival and destroys Jinson's restaurant. A family member of Qin Lee enacts revenge upon Yuanjia's family and Yuanjia flees Tianjin in shame and sorrow. He has not become the good man that has parents had intended him to be and he has used his Wushu for purposes that dishonor and shame his family.
Yuanjia nearly drowns in a stream when he is discovered by a blind girl, Yueci (Betty Sun), who takes Yuanjia to her home to heal and recover. While staying with Yueci, her family and her people, Yuanjia begins to understand who he truly is and looks for inner peace and direction. When an event occurs to celebrate the dead, Yuanjia leaves the caring blind girl to return to his home town of Tianjin for redemption and to return honor to his family. Upon returning, Yuanjia discovers an advertisement to battle an American giant, Hercules O'Brien (Nathan Jones) and looks to his former friend Jinson for enough money to travel to Shanghai to battle the American and regain some respect for the Chinese. His nation has lost face as they conform to Western lifestyles, giving up tradition and religion to the foreigners. Yuanjia slowly becomes the people's champion of China and begins to elevate his people from the embarrassment and loss of identity that has been served to them by foreigners. In an attempt to lesson Yuanjin's influence, a fight is scheduled between Yuanjia and four champion fighters from the corners of the globe; a battle that will be nearly impossible for Yuanjin to win.
With Jet Li retiring from Wushu films, "Fearless" needed to have some of the most amazing fight scenes ever captured. Li strived to deliver realism with this film and a minor amount of CGI and wire effects were used to bring the breathtaking fight sequences to life. Weapons, fists, feet and the environment are all elements of these fight sequences. If a sword is not being brandished, then a mighty punch or deadly kick is sure to send a fighter crashing through a wall, down stairs or hanging over the edge of a raised arena. During the intense fight seen between Yuanjin and Qin Lee, a two story restaurant is the stage of battle and the amount of destruction and interaction with the restaurant is simply amazing. Li is one of the best martial artists to be captured by a camera and if Li holds true to his words and never again makes a Wushu film, then this final effort can be viewed as the perfect gift for fans.
Jet Li is more than impressive in his final Wushu film. The legendary martial artist still moves fast enough that very high speed cameras are required to catch his movements. Working alongside award-winning fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, "Fearless" is one of, if not the best, example of Wushu. Li's "Jing wu ying xiong" (Fist of Legend) was previously considered the best Jet Li film, but the actor, director Ronny Yu and Woo-ping all believe that "Fearless" eclipses the older film. Li inspires to be taken more seriously and he inspired to show the true nature of Wushu by starring in a biopic of its greatest hero. "Fearless" is a solid entry point by Li to showcase his ability to supplant amazing kicks and powerful punches with dramatic performances. He also achieves in showcasing the true nature of Wushu and how the fighting style lends itself to securing peace and respect of its opponents.
The opening sequence of "Fearless," where the fighting venue in Shanghai is approached from a high altitude and long distance is jaw-dropping in its clarity and amount of detail present as the crowded streets of Shanghai and the beautiful dome come into view. The colorful costumes of late 1800s China are on showcase in all of their beauty with a transfer that does every colorful fiber full justice. A few exterior scenes find the wind gently blowing through the grass are detailed enough that you can count the glass blades. Jet Li's amazingly fast kicks and punches are handled efficiently and beautifully. Before Western influence, China was a beautiful culture and "Fearless" augments its amazing fight sequences with beautiful imagery delivered by the HD-DVD.
"Fearless" is delivered as a HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format release and features a muddy and depressing standard definition transfer on the flip side of the HD-DVD release. The 2.40:1/1080p transfer is mastered using the popular and powerful VC-1 codec. With this technology, "Fearless" ranks among the top tier of transfers for the HD-DVD format. The amount of color and detail that is present with each and every scene is about as good as it gets. Colors look so real and natural, it is hard to believe they are images on a television. Detail is very good, although a few releases have eclipsed "Fearless" by a narrow margin. Thinking back to the Blu-ray release of "House of Flying Daggers," "Fearless" is even and steady throughout its running length, where "House of Flying Daggers' was horribly uneven. Nighttime sequences exhibit nearly perfect blacks that easily blend with the letterboxing bars. I won't call this one of the absolute best transfers, but it is awfully good.
"Fearless" is provided with both a Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus mix and an English 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus dubbed soundtrack. I prefer to watch a film with its original language track and have never had a problem with subtitles, so I witnessed "Fearless" in its Chinese glory. Li does provide his own voiceover work, but his acting benefits from his native tongue and the soundtrack felt more natural. The weapons and hard hits of "Fearless" is where the soundtrack shines and this is a very good sounding film. As swords are being nicked and broken from viciously clashing together, the viewer is rewarded with stunning clarity of sound. Each bone-shattering hit arrives with a heavy sounding strike echoed in the .1 LFE channel. Each bone shattered sends chills down one's spine with the eerie sound of splintering body parts. This 360 degree enveloping mix finds all six channels used throughout the film. Environmental and ambient sound effects are aplenty and the movement of the sound between the speakers is fluid. Dialogue is good, however, once or twice a subtitle popped up on-screen and I didn't hear an accompanying spoken word. Other than that, "Fearless" is an above average experience for the ears.
Billed as an "Unrated Edition," "Fearless" is thin in its features. The film was scaled down extensively from its original 140 minutes running time for its theatrical release and subplots and scenes were removed. Lucy Liu had her part removed entirely and I, for one, would have liked the HD-DVD release to have been the longer "Director's Cut" and not this minimally modified film. About twenty minutes of supplemental material is contained on the disc. A Deleted Scene (6:40) is an extended sequence where Yuanjia is part of Yueci's village and moves to save a young boy from painful punishment. This scene was important in showing Yuanjia holding back from delivering a fatal blow and would have served nicely in the film as another testament to the true nature of Wushu. The short documentary A Fearless Journey (16:04) finds Jet Li sitting down for an interview and describing why he wanted this film to be special and why it is his final Wushu film. This featurettes contains a number of behind-the-scenes moments and information, but could have been much longer. Flipping the disc over uncovers the Theatrical Trailer, but considering the slow loading times of my HD-A1 player, it was hardly worth the effort.
"Fearless" slowly fell deeper and deeper on my pile of backlogged titles to review. Had I not decided to randomize the dozen titles on the pile to determine which film I would review next, I don't know when I would have gotten to "Fearless." I wish I had watched the film early and not ignored it for so long. I hadn't expected much from this film after being disappointed with "Hero." However, "Fearless" is awe-inspiring. This is one of the better Martial Arts you will ever see. With Jet Li and Woo-ping Yuen piecing together very visceral and energetic fight sequences, "Fearless" is almost non-stop action during its second and third act. Li had an agenda with this film and he more than succeeded in paying a final tribute to Wushu and going out with a bang. The HD-DVD sounds extremely good and looks amazing. This is a top-tier title on the technical end. The only category where the HD-DVD falls flat is the features list. The Unrated Edition arrives in on a Combo-Format platter, but the HD-DVD side contains only two supplemental items. They are nice, but shouldn't Jet Li's swan song be jam packed with nice things to show off the next generation format?