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Movie Review

Jet Li’s Fearless

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout

Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
CONTRIBUTOR

Better than Average
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults, Teens
Genre:
Action, Adventure, Drama, Biography
Length:
1 hr. 43 min.
Year of Release:
2006
USA Release:
September 22, 2006
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Copyright, Rogue Pictures
Relevant Issues
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Featuring: Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Nathan Jones, Shido Nakamura
Director: Ronny Yu
Producer: William Kong
Distributor: Rogue Pictures

“Fate made him a warrior, courage made him a hero”

“Jet Li’s Fearless” is based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a master of the Mízōngyì style of fighting in the early 20th century whose life is the source of endless TV movies, documentaries, and films in China. In the West, we are familiar with Huo Yuanjia through the movies of Bruce Lee (“Fists of Fury,” 1972) and Jet Li (“Fists of Legend,” 1994), both of which are excellent examples of the genre and tell the story of Huo’s disciples after his death.

“Fearless” portrays Huo’s childhood, his young manhood, and his adulthood. It is, strictly speaking, a rite of passage movie, showing how Huo overcame his ignorance, pride, and selfish ambition to become a great martial artist and a defender of Chinese pride.

Before that happens, Huo lives his life as an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder. He has a compulsion to prove that he is the best fighter in the city of Tianjin. One of the recurring motifs of the film is a madman who repeatedly asks Huo: “When will you be champion of Tianjin?” Over the length of the movie, the question undergoes an evolution in tone from mocking, to triumphant, to ironic, to poignant. It is a powerful device which reflects Huo’s spiritual progress even more than it does his fighting prowess.

Huo eventually becomes champion of Tianjin, defeating good fighters, foreign fighters, and crowds of fighters along the way. When he begins to drink heavily (a metaphor for how his success has intoxicated him), his mother warns him: “Wushu is not about winning; it’s about discipline and self-restraint.” But it is too late for Huo. When one of his fighters is beaten up by another master, Huo takes his revenge and suffers the tragic consequences.

Huo goes into the countryside, where he discovers who he is as an individual, apart from his identity as a fighter. In a sense, he becomes a born-again Chinese, respectful of religious traditions, of his nation’s pride, and of his martial arts. He uses his fighting ability to further the cause of his people and country rather than to glorify himself.

There are moments of pure bravura in the film. The fight scenes are masterful and creative and, above all, convincing. There is very little of the special effects that are used extensively in such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero.” Also, Huo’s transformation from an arrogant bully into a humbled master is moving. Some critics consider that portion of the movie to be “preachy,” but his life with the grandmother and her blind granddaughter, Moon (Betty Sun), provide for instructive moments such as when Moon tells him: “[Although blind], I can see everything in my heart.” The audience understands this to mean that though Moon is blind, she can “see” herself clearly. This contrasts with Huo who, while seeing, does not see himself as he is. The idea resonates strongly with the Christian perspective of those who claim to see but who are blind (John 9:41; 12:40).

When Huo returns from his sojourn, he engages a path of repentance which takes him to his old friend and to the wife of the man he killed. He apologizes to both and is clearly a humbled man. The change in his external conduct bears witness to the change in the inner man and affects everyone around him. Unfortunately, the last portion of the movie degenerates into self-pitying melodrama, which may appeal to Chinese audiences because of the strident nationalism and martyr-like death of Huo, but which will leave others disappointed.

Overall, the movie will appeal to fans of the genre, so long as they understand that there are long dramatic passages. The moral of the movie may be summarized as pride goes before the fall (Proverbs 16:18) and that repentance brings times of spiritual refreshing (Acts 3:19).

The film perhaps is more memorable as a biography of Huo Yuanjia and Li’s farewell to the martial arts genre. It will be enjoyed best by those who can’t wait until it comes out in DVD to see the fight sequences. My advice is to wait.

Background: In 1910 Shanghai, China was occupied by four foreign powers: Belgium, England, Japan, and Spain. The Chinese were humiliated in their own streets and foreign fighters, undoubtedly for box office draw, made outlandish statements such as calling China “the sick man of the East.” As it turns out, this is a true incident, reportedly involving a Russian wrestler (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huo_Yuan_Jia#_note-huozizheng). The movie combines this historical incident with another, that of the actual British boxer Hercules O’Brien (played by the freakishly-large Nathan Jones), who challenged Huo but never fought him.

In the movie, the character of Hercules O’Brien is given the Russian’s 1901 slur and is made, not surprisingly in these anti-American times, to be a brute American. So, the slur the Chinese resented in 1901 from the Russian, the filmmaker’s falsely attribute in 2006 to an American. Although the United States was not one of the imperialistic powers which humiliated China in the early 20th century, the filmmakers went out of their way to portray the American as the most barbaric character in the movie, as a caricature of a human being. Clearly, the purpose for doing so is to symbolically show the Chinese audience that China is greater than the United States. This is an unfortunate example of nationalistic jingoism which doesn’t speak well for the integrity of the filmmakers.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: None / Sex/Nudity: None


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive
Positive—The movie was full of moral lessons that could have been gleaned straight out of the book of Proverbs, and had no unscriptural themes that I can think of, except perhaps for brief scenes of filial devotion. In the movie, however, these were more like our western practice of going to the graves of our loved ones and making resolutions to honor their memory, than acts of actual ancestor worship. There was no cursing and no sexuality, and no sensuality.

It is hard to recall all of the moral virtues extolled in this movie, there were so many: love of parents and children, friends, one’s people, and even strangers and enemies; hard work with an eye to quality; the beauty of the simple life of the poor; appreciation and love of the handicapped; discipline; the superiorty of wisdom, skill, discipline and speed over raw might; the dangers of debt and overspending; an abhorance of cruelty, the pitfalls of wine and drunkenness; the destructiveness of pride and arrogance; and the beauty of humilty, repentance and forgiveness.

An especially good movie for boys and men, because it promotes the importance of channelling that love for action that all men have in the right direction. However, I do not want to downplay the fact that my wife really enjoyed it, too!
My Ratings: Excellent! / 5
—Rusty Entrekin, age 48
Positive—I could not wait to see this movie. The movie didn’t dissapoint (except the end) and the martial arts were phenomenal. I absolutely loved it and I think the best part was how clean it was, there was one curse word in the ENTIRE movie and not a hint of sexuality, awesome movie can’t wait to see it again.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 5
—Tim Whitaker, age 18
Positive—This movie was GREAT !! Really good martial arts action and I thought great acting. Jet Li's character was a bit of a knucklehead in the beginning, but learned from his mistakes and anger in the end. I found nothing to be offensive, but some of the action was brutal. I never felt like the movie tried to single out America as the bad guy, and I am a stuanch conservative that is U.S.A. all the way.
My Ratings: Good / 5
—Anthony, age 32
Positive—This was a great movie, and very clean. I don’t recall a single curse word in the entire movie, not even a d***. The violence was also very clean and there was virtually no blood. “Fearless” shows the growth of one of China’s greatest heros and has many great moral themes as others have already mentioned. This movie doesn’t even promote revenge, even though it easily could have due to the circumstances. As far as the fighting goes, it was very well done and not much of the “Crouching Tiger” flying stuff going on. There are definitely times when the characters do slightly above human acrobatics, but it is nothing like “Crouching Tiger” where people are flying around or “Hero” where the characters slash hundreds of arrows away with a sword.

In regards to the reviewer’s comment about O’Brien, I agree that it was lame that they made him an American, if he really was a Russian, but I disagree that he was this evil savage brute. His actions were very believeable to me, and he quickly changed. Overall, definitely a good movie for those into martial arts films with NO questionable material what-so-ever.
My Ratings: Good / 4
—Brett Lacher, age 20
Positive—Li intended the movie to be his definitive statement on the art of wushu, the style of martial arts he practices and masters. To see that you really need to catch the one worth watching version: the full-length director’s cut. The American release of the film is a full 40 minutes shorter. The same applies to the “unrated” version, which is simply the theatrical version with three minutes of extra violence.

Fearless is a solid film, and a graceful exit from the genre for Jet Li, the wushu epic genre. Li is not only a good athlete, he is also a good human being, and a good actor. This flick is worth a look. …
My Ratings: Moral rating: Good / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Yae Xiban, age 33 (USA)
Positive—You know why this is better than all the other martial arts films? Because you can believe it. Don’t get me wrong, “Hero” was incredible, as well as Crouching Tiger, but watching this is like watching one of those surfer movies, it looks impossible, yet he’s doing it right there. Nothing was completely over the top, it had a good story, and it pulled few punches. Good Story, Great Action, Awesome movie
My Ratings: Better than Average / 5
—Daniel Robison, age 18
Neutral
Neutral—Having seen most of all Jet Li's films, “Fearless” would rank at number 4, for me. Though it’s been promoted as his last martial arts film, catering to a western audience, a lot of blood and gore have been toned down. With a bigger budget and production, the film is slick, though not as great of an epic as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero.” “Fearless” is about Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) and his pride as a fighter who bullied his way to the top until tragedy struck at the core of his family, leaving him depressed and wondering the countryside. Living with the peasants, he learned about peace, love, and the minute detail in life’s simple givings.

Being away for so long, his country have given ways to Western influences and some of it’s ugliness, just like the young Huo. Being called to defend his country’s honors and dignities, Hou accepted the challenge and won—not just for his country, but for himself.

The action sequences are good (as Hong Kong as can be). The story is good (almost Biblically sound). The film could have been better. It is first and foremost a martial art film, but as being based on a true story and about the man who had changed for the better, needs good balance of drama, too, especially during his transformation at the country side. The blind woman who helped him needs to be developed rather than just being there for the sake of the story. I think that if the film was told in flash backs and interweaving the drama and action in parallel juxtaposition, it might have worked better.

Overall, “Fearless” is Chinese Pride. It may seem biased and prejudiced, but it is about one specific group of people. It tells the world and its own people that, being Chinese, it is good and they should be proud of themselves.
My Ratings: Good / 4
—Mang Yang, age 34
Negative

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Comments from young people

none

Positive—This was a good movie; a little violence, but not much; no language sex or anything like that. But yeah, I liked it.
My Ratings: Good / 4
—Steven, age 15
Positive—This movie was amazing. The values, like honor, respect, humility are all positively portrayed. There is no sex at all, and a didnt hear any language. The violence is intense, but its fine for all but the most sqeamish teens. I highly reccomend it!
My Ratings: Excellent! / 5
—Wes M, age 14