Some movies aspire to be important films that reflect and comment on our society.
Other films are content simply to entertain, and “Jet Li’s Fearless” is one of them.
It’s not an important film by any measure, and it certainly brings nothing new to the veritably large oeuvre of martial arts films.
However, “Fearless” does entertain. The fight sequences, which are choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping (“The Matrix” trilogy, “Kill Bill”), are a wonderful medley of dance and brutal skill.
This dance comparison is also fitting because Jet Li is to martial arts films what Fred Astaire was to classic movie musicals; their skill is undeniable, and they both embody their respective genres.
“Fearless” is the story of Huo Yuanjia (Li) who begins the movie as a confident, serene practitioner of the Jingwu school of fighting, able to defeat his opponents without killing them.
Yuanjia is China’s representative at a tournament put on by the Chinese Foreign Chamber of Commerce where he will face four different fighters, including a Spanish swordsman, a British boxer and a Japanese martial artist.
Yuanjia, of course, masterfully defeats his first three opponents. The Japanese fighter, Tanaka (Shidou Nakamura), is the remaining challenger. Here the story pauses for a flashback that takes up most of the film and informs us of Yuanjia’s journey to this fateful day.
Yuanjia is a familiar character for Li, who often plays a stoic hero in his films.
But in “Fearless” we are allowed to see Li’s character when he is a young and impetuous fighter intent on becoming the champion of his hometown of Tianjin.
In these early scenes, Li wears an impish grin and fights with boastful swagger. One of the best fight scenes in the movie occurs on the top of a very high wooden platform as Li and his opponent duke it out, all the while trying to avoid plummeting to their death below.
As with all hero stories, something tragic happens that stems from the Yuanjia’s hubris.
Without giving too much away, I will say that Yuanjia leaves Tianjin a chastened and broken man. He is, expectedly, nursed back to health by a group of villagers including a wise, blind woman named Yeuci (Betty Sun).
These scenes are the most problematic in the film.
They are filled with characters spouting various pseudo-Sun Tzuisms about being at one with yourself, which I suppose are a necessary part of any martial arts film, but don’t help “Fearless” to transcend its genre and become something special.
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining take on the archetypical hero story and it’s brimming with great fight scenes.
If this is Li’s last martial arts film (as the trailer for “Fearless” claims), he is indeed going out at the top of his form.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com