Reviewed by YTSL

Once upon a time (and not so long ago), Hong Kong movie viewers could look forward to checking out two distinct kinds of movies over the Chinese New Year holiday period.  One of these was an invariably star-studded and often nonsensical comedy; examples of which include “The Eagle Shooting Heroes”, “All’s Well, Ends Well”, “A Chinese Odyssey 2002”, “Fantasia” and this year’s “Shopaholics”.  The other would be the Jackie Chan action vehicle – a category of film which hasn’t appeared to grace the festive scene in recent years.

In the latter’s absence, the 21st century action alternatives offered until now have tended to comprise lighter – and lesser – fare like “Tokyo Raiders”, “Seoul Raiders” and Michelle Yeoh’s shambolic “Silver Hawk”.  However, in 2006, has come the hard-kicking FEARLESS: A bona fide martial arts offering cum admittedly imagined material-infused historical bio-pic directed by Ronny Yu, and starring no less than Jet Li, which not only ups the action quotient to new heights but also takes a surprisingly serious and didactic, even if arguably ultimately uplifting, tone for a beginning-of-the-year release.
Huo Yuanjia (AKA Fok Yuen-gap when pronounced the Cantonese way) was a real life martial artist who lived from 1868 to 1910.  One of China’s most celebrated kung fu exponents, he thus far has been best known to Hong Kong movie audiences as the respected master of the vengeful hero portrayed by Bruce Lee in “Fist of Fury” and, a couple of decades later, by Jet Li in “Fist of Legend”.  Alternatively put: in two major Hong Kong films, it was not so much the life of the legendary founder of the Jing Wu Men School of martial arts which was celebrated but more so that the notorious circumstances of his premature death were highlighted and identified as a catalyst for action by another (i.e., Chen Zhen, the heroic disciple whose fame – at least for contemporary movie audiences – thus eclipsed his master’s).
In contrast, FEARLESS seeks to imbue a super-heroic sheen on to Huo Yuanjia by emphasizing his bravura fighting skills but also his admirable defence of Chinese honor in the face of foreign belittlement and cultural colonialism along with his imbibing and espousing of the true spirit of martial arts.  And all these elements come together in impressively choreographed (by master Yuen Woo-Ping) plus expertly enacted contests against foreign opponents (most notably the ones essayed by the charismatic Nakamura Shidou and the man-mountain that’s Nathan Jones) which bookmark the film and display Huo’s (and Jet Li’s) prowess in the use of a traditional Chinese sword, spear and three-section-staff as well as with “empty hands”.
At the same time though, those who worry that FEARLESS is an overly jingoistic effort can rest assured that Huo Yuanjia – the son of a powerful kungfu master who, this fact notwithstanding, was not taught kungfu in his youth, and was asthmatic to boot -- also had his share of Chinese foes and opponents.  Also, as his wise woman of a mother perennially sought to point out, and he, who initially perfected his martial artistic skills at the expense of training his mind and cultivating a moral outlook, would eventually and dramatically realize, his biggest and main enemy actually would come from within.
What all this translates into in cinematic terms is a mature celluloid offering with plenty of kick-ass fight action (that’s splendidly shot by Poon Hang Sang) but also an instructive life-story and quite a bit of soul.  Jet Li fans will also be undoubtedly thrilled to learn that if FEARLESS truly is, as the man has himself sadly hinted, Jet Li’s last martial arts movie, than it is a thoroughly fitting cap on that section of his film career; and not just because, as they watch it, they will see scenes that should bring to mind certain other Jet Li movie highlights like “Fong Sai Yuk”, “Swordsman II”, “Tai Chi Master”, “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Fist of Legend” but, also, because this sterling Mainland China-Hong Kong co-production is a masterwork which would sit comfortably among that exalted company.

My rating for this film: 9.

Pictures from mov3.com

Other "View from the Brooklyn Bridge" Film Raters:

Brian: 8.0
Steve: 8.0
Sarah: 8.5