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fearless
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Fearless

Starring Jet Li
Screenplay by Chris Chow
Directed by Ronny Yu
website: www.jetlisfearless.com 

IN SHORT: More epic than start to finish wushu exposition. Fairly good epic, though. [Rated PG-13 for violence and martial arts action throughout. 103 minutes]

How strange it is to see that, with major countries reinforcing their borders and locking down access, a mere century or so ago, the same feelings were dominant in a closed to the outside world, as it had been for centuries, China. A country run by an Emperor but strongly influenced by the philosophies inherent in the various styles of wushu (martial arts) training. Understand that the 19th century China we first see is a closed shop. No foreigners. In the town square wushu masters and students, each with their own style battle for supremacy on top of a raised circular stone stage. Their students battle to hone their skills. Even more horrifying is that each contestant signs a "death waiver," just in case. Not that it happens a lot, but early dialog suggests that these fights are, at minimum, weekly occurrences. If not daily. Not only is it a philosophical and physical battle, it is also the only thing that passes for entertainment. Betting on the outcome has made many men rich. A victorious school could count on many new disciples pledging their worldly goods to the Master, and thus the economies of the small towns ran smoothly. In the Tianjin region, two arrogant Masters battle again and again. Always to the same result. The defeat of Master Huo's style to that of Master Chin.

As a matter of prolog we are introduced to Master Huo (Collin Chou) and his sons, one of whom, Huo Yuanjia (a younger Lu Yuhao), is forbidden to train. Weak and asthmatic Yuanjia is ordered to spend his time reading books and building his mind. Determined to learn the family practice, he hires his best friend Nong Jinsun (also a kidlet: Zhu Qilong ) to do the book work while he practices by mimicking the lessons he has seen. Father continues to defend his practice of wushu against other teachers and styles, but he usually loses. When a larger boy called Zhou (Shang Yapeng) taunts young Huo after yet another defeat for daddy, the kids have at it. Yuanjia gets his butt kicked. First by the bully, then again by a stern father. Well, almost. If nothing else, director Ronny Yu's devotion to exploring the intimate workings of the 19th century family foreshadow a wushu film that is more epic than smash-face.

Tragedy is inevitable. Huo Yuanjia grows into an illiterate adult (portrayed as such by Jet Li), strong -- the training has cured his asthma -- and determined to revenge himself upon Zhou, the other bullies of his youth and the enemies of his father's school -- father had died in combat, before his son's eyes, years earlier. Yuanjia's revenge challenges are successful. He builds a small school and, slowly, disciples come and pledge their unwavering loyalty. Master and disciples drink together at a restaurant now owned by the grown up Nong Jinsun (as an adult by Dong Yong), a successful businessman. They drink some more when battles go well and when young Master Huo has defeated all but one of the local master fighters he is prepared, in his youthful arrogance, to proclaim himself Champion of Tianjin. Only Master Chin stands in the way. When one of Huo's disciples is carried back to the school one evening, beaten and bloodied, claiming it was at the hands of Master Chin, the arrogant, hot tempered Master Huo tears across town to interrupt Chin's birthday celebration and inflict a most terrible, and most final revenge.

It's one helluva battle. And we're not going to tell you any more about it other than to say Our Hero sure could've used an Uncle Ben to teach him about power and responsibility. Instead, in exile, he learns all about personal and moral balance and all sorts of Chinese philosophical stuff from a beautiful blind woman named Moon (Sun Li). When he returns to his city, well, Westerners have lined the streets with trash and battles to the death have been replaced by exhibitions of caucasian strong men, in one case a large brute called O'Brien, beating up on any and all "weak willed" Chinese challengers. Someone has to win back respect for the people, and . . .

. . . this is about where cynics among our readership will roll their eyes and mutter "What? This Again!" True, it is a tried and true movie template. Before you dismiss this film out of hand, go to the website or the IMDB. Dramatization is one thing but Dramatic recreation of an authentic legend -- Huo Yuanjia was a real person and is revered not only in China but throughout the wushu world. There are thousands of martial arts schools all over this planet, every single one of them with a direct historical connection to the original school founded by Huo Yuanjia back about 1910.

Ah, yes, you boys want to know about the fighting... this being Jet Li's final wushu film, after all. There are three major battle sequences with escalating weapons danger and violence, culminating in a four against one series of battles, all with different weapons, and an evil twist. Even in slow motion, most of the time Jet Li moves so quickly the normal human minds frazzles in half the time.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Fearless, he would have paid . . .

$7.50

We clued you in to the reality of the story -- for those that never took karate lessons with the two bit historical orientation thrown in -- because that will help get you through the center of the film which feels a bit draggy. Philosophy doesn't translate well on the big screen, especially when it's taught in things like unfulfilling longing glances and splashing water and other symbolic things. There's a philosophical wringer at the end as well, but it caps off the third of the most jaw dropping battles you'll ever see on a big screen. Jet Li delivers something for everyone as he drops the curtain on his wushu career.

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.