At one time thought to be Jet Li's last film, 'Fearless' had an undo amount of pressure heaped on its shoulders during its theatrical release. As such, some critics proclaimed it to be a weak effort that wasn't worthy of being a capstone to a great martial artist's film career. As a huge Jet Li fan myself, I actually skipped the film on its initial outing just because I didn't want to be disappointed, and if I hadn't been assigned to review 'Fearless,' I might have waited another few years until I ran out of interesting things to put on my Netflix queue.
But that would have been a mistake. I have no idea what movie other people were watching, but I found 'Fearless' to be a taught, well-paced and intriguing flick that expertly crafted a morality tale of losing one's self to ego and pride. Jet Li turns in a masterfully rounded performance and reveals him to be an amazingly complex actor as much as he is a skilled martial artist.
Based with stylized alterations on true events, 'Fearless' tells the story of Chinese master Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century when much of Asia was being infiltrated by Western influences. With the singular and obsessive goal of being the best fighter in the land, Yuanjia embarks on a series of battles that lead him down a path of self glorification. When his drive for infamy ends in heartrending tragedy, he retreats to the wilderness to reflect on the true meaning of fighting, Wushu, and life itself. Returning for one last run at fighting glory, he places himself in the path of Western fighters to teach the newborn culture the difference between victory and honor.
The fight scenes (likely any fan's first priority in a Jet Li film) are beautifully choreographed by director Ronny Yu, mixing fantasy and reality in a much more convincing manner than Ang Lee's masterwork, 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' Impacts and blows come with startlingly realistic weight and power and 'Fearless' never feels flighty or airy in its battle ballet. Most impressive, each fight comes with its own particular flavor and personality as Li brings new styles, weapons, and imagination to the floor with an intensity that is matched only by the best the genre has to offer.
But the moments I enjoyed the most came at the halfway mark of the film, when the tone completely changed course and began to follow the warrior's decent into self loathing and rebirth. Action junkies will be bored to tears for a good thirty minutes when it hits, but I found it to be a refreshing switch from the endless bouts of violence to wonderfully written character development. It's here that the script really impresses, elevating 'Fearless' to another level and placing it alongside Li's most celebrated earlier works. The moments between Yuanjia and his daughter, the scenes of strained brotherhood with childhood friend Nong (Yong Dong), the lessons of honor with Japanese fighter Shido Nakamura (Anno Tanaka) and the quiet bonds he creates with his later opponents are executed with grace and an understanding of what truly affects another person.
There are a few problems -- mild feelings of repetition settle in during the first act, the film can deceptively seem like an excuse to rush to the next fight, the nineteenth century setting can be occasionally distracting to a casual martial arts fanbase (particuarly the circus tent exhibition fight with Nathan Jones), and a complete explanation for Yuanjia's mental recovery, aside from the passage of time, isn't dealt with in detail -- but these are often minor complaints that are only an issue on the movie's first viewing. Im short, if you're looking for a martial arts flick that's a deft mix of genre-heightening battles, subtle moments of humanity, and character introspection, you can't go wrong with 'Fearless.'
'Fearless' has quickly become one of my platform discs for convincing friends that the upgrade to high-def is worth the investment. Presented in 1080p utilizing the VC-1 codec, Jet Li storms across the screen without a flicker of source noise or discrepancies. Just flip the disc over to the standard DVD side and watch the nighttime fight against Master Chin in Nong's restaurant -- this scene, a trial of artifacting and low shadow depth on standard-def DVD, is handled with ease on the HD DVD transfer of the film.
Colors are rich and vibrant, outdoor scenes (like the village Yuanjia retreats to in the second act) are sharply detailed and lush with greenery, and the contrast never wavers -- even in scenes where Li's bright clothing flutters across black space. Putting all of this to shame, however, is the natural skin tones and texture detail that brings the nineteenth century world of 'Fearless' to earthy, grimy life. While the standard-def DVD occasionally feels like watching a comic book film, the HD DVD feels like watching an ancient Chinese painting that's sprung to life.
This is also the first HD DVD I've watched in true 1080p since I picked up Toshiba's new top-end HD-XA2. Needless to say, you'll rarely spot a difference, but nature shots with leaves and stones are a perfect example of the difference the "p" actually makes. Pause the moment when Li stops his work in the village, closes his eyes, and feels the wind brush past him -- look at the leaves on the trees, the individual blades of grass, and the hair on the villagers heads flicker in the breeze. Beyond this, and with nothing specific to point to, the image just feels more stable and crisp.
Problems? Sure. There were a few times when the image would stutter when the camera would pan quickly to the side and the image shifted contrast extremes (hard white to hard black), but I honestly couldn't tell if this was a stylistic choice or a problem with the print. However, in our hardware review of the new Toshiba HD-XA2 player, Joshua Zyber writes, "On certain discs, both HD DVD and standard DVD, I found the HD-XA2 to have a video stutter issue. To the eye it looks as if the player is dropping a frame here and there. It doesn't affect every disc, but on those it does, the problem is reproducible in the same location with repeated playback. The effect is subtle, but it's definitely there if you look for it, and it's not present on the HD-A1." This may solve the mystery.
Beyond this, for a series of bouts grounded in realistic gravity, there are a handful of examples of airborne antics. Remember the scene in 'X-Men' where Wolverine awkwardly claws into the Statue of Liberty's crown and somehow manages to flip himself to safety when inertia would suggest otherwise? Early moments in 'Fearless' have the same issue -- when Li fights his childhood rival on a series of platforms, you'll notice his sudden ability to change direction in mid air when launched toward the ground. Normally, in a film like the aforementioned 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' I wouldn't complain because the "reality" of the movie's universe is steeped in impossible changes in the physics of movement. But in a film like 'Fearless,' where the director makes such an effort to establish a certain realism, these half-second flips are (marginally) distracting.
Punching its way into your home theater comes a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Chinese track that does a nice job balancing hits and soft dialogue. While most martial arts sound effects often ring false and rely on treble ranges to give them oomph, the effects in 'Fearless' are more organic, bass reliant, and incorporate authentic impact noises that take clothing material, body type, and force into account. Splintering wood, metal clangs, and weapon strikes also display this attention to detail and I never found myself frowning at an overblown or overdone soundscape.
All of the channels are used to full effect and the second act scenes in the village revel in layering a convincing world inside of the soundfield. There are times when this works against 'Fearless' though, as crowded scenes lead to crowded sound design -- some of the fights are so packed with chatter, cheers, punches, kicks, airborne whooshes, and movement swishes, that balance briefly flies out the window and just packs your home theater with noise. However, these instances usually come with a careful sound prioritization that keeps important dialogue and effects at the forefront and purposefully routes other sounds around the soundfield to keep them less intrusive.
When I saw that one of the Special Features was a "Deleted Scene," the first thing I noticed was the lack of an "s" on "Scene." As I clicked on the single moment, I had an entire paragraph written in my head mocking 'Fearless' for joining a group of movies that apparently refer to anything extra as special. But I quickly changed my mind -- just this once.
The deleted scene in question is actually a seven minute subplot that was as enjoyable as the film itself. My only complaint is its exclusion from the Unrated cut of 'Fearless' on the disc. Not only does it add a perfect character beat, but it compliments the theme of the film in ways that I can only begin to hint at. My theory is that it reformed Yuanjia too quickly for the film as whole and that was Yu's reason for removing it. But fans of the film should definitely take the time to check it out -- it isn't at all what I expected.
Which leads me to the otherwise overwhelming absence of solid features for 'Fearless.' Considering it was originally touted as Li's last film, I at least expected a commentary from the actor akin to the engaging track he provided on 'Kiss of the Dragon.' Sadly, there's only a talking heads featurette called "A Fearless Journey" which is fun, but ends too quickly. Other than that, the package includes the theatrical cut of the film on the standard DVD side of the disc, but nothing else.