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Jet Li's Fearless: Unrated Edition

In interviews, Jet Li has described his "final martial-arts epic," Fearless (2006), as a chance for him "to use a violent story to talk about a non-violent idea." And so this big-hearted action parable opens in the middle of its final, very violent battle. We zoom into a Shanghai arena in 1910 to find Chinese martial-arts master Huo Yuanjia (Li) creatively thwacking some foreign opponents. We're in the middle of a public contest — one designed (poorly, as it turns out) to humiliate China. Huo's smackdowns are as over-the-top insane as you'd expect the final collaboration of Jet Li and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping to be. Three European fighters go down quickly, and a stern-looking Japanese karate master (Shido Nakamura) steps into the ring for the final showdown. And suddenly, the camera shoots into Huo Yuanjia's memory, and we see how his entire life led him to that arena — and we learn that some of our initial assumptions might be wrong. And the movie turns into an inspirational, uncomplicated biopic… in which, yes, a series of awesomely violent fight scenes teach us that our worst enemy can be found between our ears. Huo Yuanjia was a real guy — a stunning athlete, founder of a still-running martial-arts school in Shanghai, a legend mixed up in revolutionary fervor, the subject of several biopics. He's Muhammad Ali and Che Guevara in one ultra-disciplined, lethal package. And Jet Li and director Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair, Bride of Chucky) mostly ignore or gloss over the particulars of his life in favor of a more universal spiritual message. The Huo Yuanjia of Fearless goes through a Hero's Journey straight out of Hollywood: A callow, arrogant and competitive kid makes horrible mistakes and alienates his friends, retreats to a Hobbiton-like farming village to learn some simple truths, and returns a different sort of warrior. It's simple stuff, but — and this is crucial — it's not dumb simple stuff. (In fact, much as good as Hero is, it's actually kind of nice to see a wushu epic that doesn't ask us to choke down dense chunks of Chinese mythological history.) And there are a few surprises: Jet Li grins and mugs (a little too much) through the movie's arrogant-youth section, for example, and Japanese and American combatants enjoy moments of honor and dignity. In Chinese cinema, that's fairly rare. One has to wonder how American audiences who enjoy more brutal martial-arts fare will feel about Fearless. Though it somehow manages to be a movie about inner peace with crazy, incredibly staged fight scenes every 10 minutes, it is, first and foremost, a movie about inner peace. It's brazenly sentimental. It preaches earnest Buddhist ideals (the post-enlightenment Huo tends to make pronouncements like, "Competitions can uncover our weaknesses and open a path to discovery"). And it features no clear villain beyond Huo Yuanjia's flawed, impulsive self. It's also kind of beautiful. Rogue/Universal's "unrated" DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, while both the theatrical and "unrated" version are on board. Supplements include the featurette "A Fearless Journey" and a deleted scene. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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