Huo Yuanjia was a Chinese martial arts master at the turn of the last century whose strength and bravery inspire fighters to this day. His story, told epically in “Fearless” by director Ronny Yu and writer Chris Chow, is a fitting coda for actor Jet Li’s career as a movie martial artist.
Li has said this is his last big fists-and-swords saga, and it’s a properly sober and sophisticated movie for such an occasion. It demonstrates Li’s love for the art as well as his admiration for Huo Yuanjia, though like so many biopics, a blind devotion to the subject renders the film a little stale at times.
After some unnecessary flashbacks to Yuanjia’s childhood — is there a rule that ALL biopics must include scenes of the protagonist as a child? — we meet him as an adult, highly skilled in the art of wushu and even attracting an entourage of followers and disciples. His head is perhaps a bit swelled, and we all know what pride goeth before.
There is a personal tragedy and then some wandering around, and then Yuanjia washes up in an idyllic little village of rice growers. He is cared for by the lovely Moon (Li Sun), who teaches him how to plant rice in the soggy canals. He has no idea how to do things like this, having become used to his fame as a fighter. He’s lost his appreciation for nature, too: When his fellow workers stand up to appreciate a pleasant breeze blowing past, Yuanjia takes the opportunity to plant faster and get ahead of them.
He eventually winds up in the big city again, finding it changed from when he was last there. Foreigners have come in and now rule almost everything, humiliating the Chinese at every turn. People dress in Western clothes. There are Christian missionaries preaching on street corners.
The locals, in an effort to prove the Chinese people’s dominance, put their best fighter, Yuanjia, up against four fighters from other regions. This event provides the film’s action climax, but it’s important to note that this is not, strictly speaking, an action film. What fights are included are fantastically choreographed and lovingly filmed (Ronny Yu is an old pro at this), but they are not the focus. The character of Huo Yuanjia is the focus, with the details of his fights comparatively unimportant until the end.
As such, I think some audiences will be disappointed. Those expecting wall-to-wall hand-to-hand combat will certainly feel slighted. But those wanting a detailed character study may also feel that something is missing from Yuanjia’s tale. His rise, fall and redemption are stirring enough, acted with tender stoicism by Li — yet as is the curse of this genre (biopics, not fight films), I never felt like I truly knew anything about him. He’s more legend than man.
B- (1 hr., 43 min.; Chinese with subtitles; )