Mid 2000 the revival of the Hong Kong martial arts flick was well under way. Many established directors jumped on the boat and tried to one up the films that preceded their own efforts. Ronny Yu, back from his little adventure in America, was one of them. Together with Jet Li he set out to make the ultimate wushu film. And truth be told, they came pretty close with Fearless [Huo Yuanjia]. Ten years later, the film still holds its own and can be seen as one of the best in the genre.
After a successful run in the 80s and 90s and a semi-successful run directing a couple of franchise horror sequels in Hollywood, Ronny Yu returned to Hong Kong (as most Hong Kong directors do after trying their luck in America) to reboot his career. There he teamed up with Jet Li to direct Li's final wushu film, causing quite a stir in the West (where the difference between wushu and martial arts cinema in general was quickly lost in translation). It really got the buzz going around Fearless.
The film centers around Fearless, real life Chinese martial arts legend. The man lived in the late 19th century and founded one of the more popular martial arts schools in Shanghai. But his true fame comes from beating down a series of foreign fighters in bouts staged to underline foreign supremacy. At a time when China was overrun by outside influences, Yuanjia gave the Chinese people back their culture, and even more importantly, their dignity.
The problem with recounting the life of someone like Yuanjia is that because of all the stories and legends surrounding him it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Yu's film is clearly more of a cinematic experience than it is a history lesson, cherry-picking the tales that shaped Yuanjia's legend. The film is split in three big acts, starting off with the younger (and more arrogant) years of Yuanjia, followed by his spiritual rebirth and ending with his return to Shanghai, where the stage is set for the big fights.
On a visual level Fearless easily holds its own among its peers. But instead of following the pull to mysticism (The Banquet, Hero) that was all the rage back then, Yu went for a more down-to-earth approach that would serve as an inspiration for Wilson Yip's Yip Man and Yip Man 2: Cheung Si Cheun Kei. While the CG is a little too obvious by modern standards, the setting is lush and the camera work top notch, without really overdoing things.
The soundtrack is pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. While very present and epic-sounding it's also a little bland and incredibly forgettable. There's a classic Chinese vibe that goes well with the setting and time period and it's an effective soundtrack as far as supporting the fight sequences goes, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember much, if anything, the next day.
As for the acting, watching this film again it's clear that Hong Kong never really found a replacement for Jet Li. Jacky Wu and Donnie Yen are good in their own right, but the combination of Li's charismatic smile, controlled posture and amazingly agile fighting techniques is simply unmatched. It's always a pleasure to see him in action and Fearless provides him ample opportunities to show off his wushu skills one last time. The rest of the cast is okay (Shido Nakamura makes a notable appearance), but this film is really a one-man show.
If you're allergic to Chinese propaganda you might want to think twice before watching this film. While the opening segment may be a little crude, especially for a martial arts film, Fearless is really about keeping the Yuanjia myth alive. Yu takes quite a few liberties towards the end of the film, painting Yuanjia as a martyr that fought for his fellow countrymen, upholding Chinese values while kicking foreign ass in the process. Personally I don't mind, but I'm sure not everyone will be appreciative of the message.
If you're looking for a stellar martial arts flick though, Fearless is a safe bet. The middle part may be a little light on action, but the first and last act contain some of the better fight scenes to ever come out of Hong Kong. Jet Li gives a tremendous performance and production values are high all around. Fearless is a great wushu epic honouring one of China's biggest martial arts legends. It may not be true to life, but that's why Yu made a feature film instead of directing a documentary.