The great thing about “Jet Li’s Fearless” is that Jet Li’s fearless: fearless about feeling pain, fearless about inflicting pain, and fearless about reciting painful dialogue that sounds only a little better because it’s in Chinese.
But we didn’t come to the theatre to see Jet Li act. We came to see Jet Li fight, and on this point the movie unashamedly delivers. The story is simple and formulaic — a Wu Shu warrior rises, falls and rises again in turn of the century China — with just enough dialogue to get us to the next fight scene, where Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) inevitably cracks some skulls. Even the obligatory scenes of Huo Yuanjia’s life as a kid are bloodied up by a battle between him and a bully. And this isn’t any ordinary schoolyard tussle — it’s an amateur martial arts brawl in a wrestling ring.
The childhood scenes are brief, as the young Yuanjia quickly finds some reason to swear that he’ll one day become the best fighter in the region, and literally before you know it, he is. There’s no training involved. When the film suddenly cuts ahead fifteen years and the actor who plays young Yuanjia gets replaced by Jet Li, our hero is already equipped with supernatural fighting skills. This is a good thing, though, because it means more time watching him kick, punch, and scratch.
In battle, Yuanjia goes undefeated, and his unchecked pride predictably leads to his downfall. Opponents die if you hit them hard enough, Yuanjia learns, and after a messy revenge chain where his working life gets mixed with his personal one, he decides it best to take some time off in an idyllic farm community and learn some essential virtues by planting rice and staring silently at a cute girl named Moon (Betty Sun!). The movie seems eager to impart morals by having Jet Li say lines like “revenge only breeds more bloodshed,” “competition uncovers weakness and leads to self-discovery” and “our true enemies are but ourselves,” which, though they are met with much head nodding and brow furrowing, end up sounding ridiculous.
Thankfully, the movie’s visuals take the edge off the sub-par dialogue. The nature scenes are striking and, combined with the simple plot, make the whole thing feel like a fairy tale — and this isn’t a bad thing. Though the movie falls significantly short of the epic scope it tries to achieve, it is nevertheless an entertaining ride. Parts of it are downright hilarious, though I doubt this is what the director had in mind.
The fight scenes are what ultimately make the movie succeed, and Jet Li knows it. He fights in big rings and small rings, rings in the air and rings on the ground, rings inside and rings outside, and even in a restaurant. Admittedly this last arena is perhaps not the most economical choice, but honor is honor, and if some Wu Shu master offended you during dinner, wouldn’t you decide to settle it right then and there? Even if the restaurant you were eating in belonged to your best friend? The obvious answer is a resounding yes, and since everyone knows that the amount of collateral property damage is directly proportional to the battle’s entertainment value, Jet Li makes sure to trash every piece of furniture within his sword’s reach. The action achieves grace as dextrous moves mix with serious rib crunching. If “Fearless” were a video game, it would be like playing “Street Fighter” and “Dance Dance Revolution” at the same time.
One fight in particular was so good that I had to stop myself from sitting up in the theatre and head locking the guy next to me. It’s Huo Yuanjia vs. Heracles O’Brien, an all-American behemoth who looks straight out of the WWE. It’s the ultimate battle between East and West: a clashing of cultures and of fighting styles, Yuanjia with his trusty Wu Shu, and Heracles with the choke slam. Heracles’s self-proclaimed superiority over the “weak men of the East” draws the link between this fight and the Chinese struggle against American imperialist tendencies, and as metaphors go, it couldn’t be more entertaining.
I think the person who best described the film was a woman I saw stumbling out of the theatre. She walked up to me, placed a hand on my arm, put the other to her forehead and gasped, “Now that was a Jet Li movie!” “Yeah!” I shouted back and pumped my fist in the air.
Because after all, that’s what it was.