I have always said that I wanted to study martial arts so that I could pick fights at bars. This is the wrong reason to study martial arts. It’s so wrong, in fact, that Jet Li’s new movie is essentially all about that.
How do you make a movie about the philosophy behind martial arts, which is basically about self-control and discipline and not really about fighting? The answer that Li and director Ronny Yu came up with is to front load the movie with action, making Fearless one of the most unique martial arts films I have ever seen – instead of ramping up to a climactic battle or series of battles at the end, Fearless has its biggest set piece in the middle. When that battle is over Li – playing a martial artist who has forgotten the point of wushu, the Chinese martial art, and is only interested in winning, fame and being the best – has fatally injured his opponent. In retaliation, Li’s family is murdered. Again, Fearless opts for the road less traveled here – rather than engage in vengeance, Li leaves town and wanders across the countryside until he can finally reconnect with the philosophical principals he forgot.
Fearless isn’t the first action or martial arts movie I have seen where the protagonist doesn’t want to fight, but what makes Fearless different is that once he makes that decision, he mostly doesn’t fight. Luckily the story and the character sustain you once the action has ended, and while Fearless often drifts into hokiness (while in exile Li meets a beautiful young woman who nurses him back to strength who also happens to be blind for seemingly no narrative reason) it’s hard to dislike the film’s earnestness.
It’s also hard to dislike the film’s action scenes, which come fast and furious in the beginning. Except for the major set piece all of the fights in Fearless are exhibition matches, but they tend to give Li a chance to show off his chops. In one battle he fights a guy one handed while holding an umbrella. Another tour de force fight takes place (for reasons no one ever sees fit to explain) on a 40 foot tall platform (which is apparently immediately dismantled). The turning point fight rages across multiple levels of a restaurant and goes from swords to bare hands in the most brutal manner.
Sadly too many of these fights scenes are shot with a hyperkinetic style. Yu could have learned from Tony Jaa’s films that sometimes all we want to see is the incredible talents of the fighters, and that we don’t need endless speed changes and camera flourishes to make a battle on a 40 foot platform all that much more exciting. While Fearless is technically a wuxia movie, it’s a very understated wuxia movie. The fighters do jump higher and farther than a human should be able to… but not by much. Just enough to enhance the move. This isn’t Crouching Tiger territory, with people sailing through the air.
Jet Li has claimed this will be his final film in the wuxia genre, and he’s going out on a strong note. Fearless is lovely but not as lyrical and beautiful as Hero, and it’s a little didactic with its message. Like Hero, Fearless has a political element to it as the Chinese try to prove themselves to Westerners. But Li’s character teaches one important lesson – the only person you have to prove yourself to is… yourself.
See, I told it’s a really earnest movie.