Rumors have been flying that Jet Li is retiring after Fearless, but loyal fans should not worry. He's only finished making wushu films (i.e. films about his own personal fighting style). He has revealed in interviews that he has said everything he's ever going to say on the topic in Fearless.
As a result, Fearless is a dual-edged sword, but both sides cut equally sharp. Li once again impresses viewers with his astonishing physical prowess, but the message here is that all the opponents in the world mean nothing; it's your own true self that is your greatest enemy. (Li has said that "wushu" literally translates into "stop war." People get the "war" or "fight" part, but don't quite understand the "stop" part.)
Along those same lines, Li -- as well as many of his martial arts contemporaries -- is usually misinterpreted as a tough guy, a superbad fighter that can kick any behind in the room. But in reality, he's a poet, a dancer with the grace and sophistication of a Fred Astaire. Moreover, Li shares the same critical reception as most dancers or comedians, or artists who accomplish their cinematic work through physical means; he is ignored. But I maintain that in Fearless he has given performances worthy of awards.
And why not? After all, Fearless is a biopic, based on a true story and a real person, and the Academy likes nothing better (except maybe physical deformities or mental illnesses). Just recall how effective Li was in his last two performances; the stoic, nameless hero of Hero (2004) and the confused, curious Danny the Dog in Unleashed (2005). And then there's the obvious factor: no one else alive could have pulled off this role.
According to Fearless, Huo Juan-jia (Li) became a hero in 1910 when he competed in a martial arts tournament against four champions from all over the world in a quest to restore China's dignity in an increasingly westernized land. But Huo's biggest battle was with his own arrogance; in becoming the number one fighter in town, he neglected his family, friends, finances and everything else.
As a child, he witnesses his father losing a fight that could easily have been won. Angry, he challenges the winner's son to a battle -- and loses. He vows never to lose again. Years later, he has grown cocky and reckless, neglecting his wife and daughter in favor of more fighting and more glory. He begins drinking and taking on more and more disciples (most of whom are content to spend their time drinking as well).
Li does a remarkable job of conveying this inner turmoil with his less-is-more approach. After 15 years as one of the biggest stars on the planet, he understands that the human face can reveal worlds when properly scrutinized.
Predictably, this leads to disaster and Huo exiles himself in a remote village, befriending a lovely blind girl and working in the rice fields. When he returns, he challenges an American strongman called Hercules O'Brien, who made headlines by defeating Chinese fighters and calling China a country of weak men. O'Brien is played by the enormous (nearly 7 feet tall, 360 pound) Nathan Jones, who also tussles with Tony Jaa in the new film The Protector; I predict he'll be starring in his own film before too long.
Already a huge hit in China, Fearless moves somewhat according to biopic standards; it has a larger-than-life, rise-and-fall structure that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) or Michael Mann's Ali (2001), but with a palpable sense of soapy melodrama.
Fortunately, the project fell into the capable hands of director Ronny Yu. This marks the first time that Li has worked with an actual Hong Kong action director since perhaps Sammo Hung's Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997). Though he has directed fun horror movies like Bride of Chucky (1998) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Yu is perhaps best known for his glorious Hong Kong masterpiece The Bride with White Hair (1993). He has a lovely, passionate gift for this old-fashioned, D.W. Griffith-like storytelling. Yu guides the film in great, epic chunks; to emphasize Huo's despair just before his initial downfall, the director covers the film in a gray mist. But he also knows how to stop for a moment of contemplation, as when Huo learns while planting rice pats how to appreciate a cool breeze.
But coming from Hong Kong, Yu also has the gift for swift, clear action, unlike most American directors who stage their quickie fight scenes with shaking cameras and jumpy cutting (see Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon and Cradle 2 the Grave for the very worst examples). In Fearless, Yu displays Li's incredible, real-time movements to full effect, aiming for medium-to-wide compositions (not unlike Astaire's films) and beautifully sustained, fluid shots. This also allows us to appreciate the skills of Huo's opponents, who are considerably more challenging than the usual lackeys.
Fearless ultimately achieves the best of both worlds. It's a gorgeous, knuckle-biter of a fight film, but also a moving tale with a heart as big as its roundhouse kick.