Hailed as Jet Li’s final martial arts epic, Jet Li’s Fearless is a unique story about Chinese historical figure Huo Yuanjia who rose to fame in China before disgracing himself and bringing tragedy upon his family, only to later redeem himself and his country in a national tournament. The movie opens on a competition promoted by the Foreign Chamber of Commerce in 1910 in which Yuanjia (Li) must fight four opponents in succession, each representing a different faction of foreign influence in China.
The thrilling fight sequence segues to Yuanjia’s backstory as the asthmatic son of a wushu master who attempted to shield his weak son from the skills he taught others. Director/producer Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky) and action choreographer Yuen Wo Peng (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2) pack the film with twice the action of a typical kung fu action movie and still render a poignant parable of human experience.
After his father loses a public match, the young Yuanjia loses a fight to a bully and vows never again to lose. Yuanjia remains true to his oath as he diligently trains in solitude for years before battling against fighters from all around his region, exhibiting an outsized ego to match his increasing fame.
With his best friend and trusted accountant beside him, Yuanjia invariably takes on disciples and dilettantes interested in taking advantage of the free food and drinks that he offers them. Yuanjia’s hubris backfires when another local wushu master beats up one of his students, and the revenge-seeking Yuanjia interrupts the man’s birthday celebration to challenge him to a contest that will serve as the action centerpiece of the movie.
As party guests flee, Yuanjia and his opponent wield mighty Daoshu swords against one another in a breathtaking duel that is one of the most electrifying fight sequences ever filmed. Before the combat is over, the swords will be chipped apart and the men will resort to their most lethal barehanded techniques.
The aftermath of the fight sends Yuanjia on a self-imposed exile that finds him aided by a blind rural farm girl named Moon (Sun Li) who gradually helps the disconsolate man restore his sense of self. It’s during this second act that the unspoken meaning of “wushu” surfaces in the subtext of the narrative and we witness Yuanjia’s competitive nature put in check.
For all its phenomenal action-packed combat scenes that feature rarely seen weapons such as the three-section staff and the spear, the movie meticulously fulfills its emotional and thematic context to its historical subject. Jet Li thoroughly inhabits his character’s spiritual transformation with a transparent and uninhibited performance that sticks with you long after the rush of the visual action has subsided. Director Ronny Yu eschews wires and quick cuts in favor of allowing the audience to savor the full scope of Li’s estimable skill set.
In clarifying his public statement about the movie marking the end of his career as a martial arts star, Jet Li has stated that it is merely the last film in which he will practice the strenuous traditional wushu style of masters like Huo Yuanjia. At the age of 43, Jet’s body won’t allow him the hyperbolic displays of athleticism that the genre demands.
He will however continue to perform roles that utilize his fantastic skills in films like the upcoming Rogue opposite Jason Statham, where Li plays an enigmatic assassin. Jet Li’s Fearless isn’t just a martial arts movie; it is a truly great one. MTW