Coming across as an act of atonement for what he apparently views to be his oeuvre’s unintended legacy of celebrating violence, Jet Li’s Fearless finds the Chinese star saddling his trademark ass-kicking with didactic messages about the futility of brutality and revenge, and the true, peaceful nature of Wushu fighting techniques. Based on the life of early 20th-century martial artist Huo Yuanjia, Ronny Yu’s film is an attempt at dual lionization, as Chris Chow’s script paints a reverential portrait of its subject—who founded the Jingwu Sports Federation while preaching peace, inner strength, and cultural pride during a period of supposed Chinese humiliation at the hands of Western powers—as well as Li himself, whose desire to have this be his final martial arts vehicle results in a coda in which his ghostly, god-like spirit radiates over the countryside. More entrancing than such idolatry is Li’s largely undiminished physical skills, which Yu occasionally gussies up with obvious wire work and CG effects but which, during early bouts of exhilaratingly shot and staged hand-to-hand and weapon-equipped combat, nonetheless remain thrilling in their fierce, fleet precision. When the arrogant, vengeful Yuanjia’s maliciousness results in murder and an equally lethal reprisal, the ashamed hero retreats to a rural farm to seek salvation, which he finds via one of those blind women familiar from so many well-worn martial arts movies who spout sage advice because—sheesh—they can see better than the wounded souls for whom they care. After learning that winning isn’t everything, that stopping to enjoy the breeze is soul-soothing, and that planting crops is a quicker way to enlightenment than beating someone to death, Yuanjia returns to preach—and preach, and preach—his newfound belief in civil and dignified competition as a path toward personal harmony and national unity. Yet while its protagonist’s message rings true and its battle sequences prove gripping, Jet Li’s Fearless is both slightly ham-fisted in its efforts to have its individual and political narratives mirror one another (an endeavor that involves cardboard-thin U.S., British, and Japanese villains), as well as intent on condemning, in its latter half, what it gleefully asked audiences to savor during its first half. Beginning as a polished, visually ravishing capper to Li’s illustrious action career, it ultimately sermonizes itself into something of a bloodlust-denigrating wet blanket.
- Ronny Yu
- Chris Chow
- Jet Li, Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li, Dong Yong, Paw Hee Ching, Chen Zhihui, Ting Leung, Qu Yun, Scott Ma, Nathan Jones
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: