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Jet Li's Fearless is the story of Huo Yuanjia, who we meet as a young boy in the 1800s. Huo is fascinated with the ancient Chinese fighting art of Wushu, and hopes his father, a master of the martial arts, will teach him. But the man refuses because his son has asthma and he fears that he won't be strong enough.
One day the young Yuanjia secretly watches his father fight in a local championship bout and sees Dad restrain himself from delivering a finishing (but potentially fatal) blow. The opponent rebounds and is victorious. Huo, shamed by his father's "weakness," vows one day to become a great fighter who never loses a fight and who brings honor to his family.
Over the following years, he lives up to his promise, but also becomes a vain and arrogant man who cares only for winning. That prideful competitiveness, combined with an unfortunate misunderstanding, drives him to fight and kill the local champion, Master Qin. As a result, his mother and daughter are murdered in revenge, which causes Huo to wander into the wilderness, guilty, battered and nearly insane.
In the meantime, Western Imperialists are taking over China and sponsoring new championships designed to humiliate the Chinese and crush their spirit. Huo must find a way out of his personal abyss and fight to regain the honor that his countrymen desperately need.
After Huo kills Master Qin and loses his family, he realizes that his actions were the cause of everyone's pain. While wandering, he is found by a blind girl (Moon) and her grandmother who give him shelter and nurse him back to health. The simple joys of hard work and the women's open kindness help teach Huo of compassion and loving service.
Huo's childhood friend Nong Jinsun expresses concern over Huo's increasingly destructive choices. And after Huo disappears, Nong pays all his bills and later sells his restaurant to support him. When Huo returns home, he does so with a humble spirit, burning his trophies of fighting glory and apologizing to those he wounded. Huo then dedicates himself to compete against the Westerners, but he does so to encourage the Chinese people.
During his later bouts, it is clear that Huo has learned his father's lesson and stops himself from inflicting severe injury—in fact, he actually saves one large but foolish man from accidentally impaling his face on a spike. Also, the prideful and ruthless fighter becomes a loving and playful father to his little daughter.
When Huo wanders through town, amazed at all the new Western faces and armed troops, he passes an evangelist waving a Bible on the street corner. The preacher calls out, "God's word is in this book. It is the truth!"
There are also a few bits of Chinese spiritualism in Fearless. For example, when Huo approaches Master Qin's wife to apologize, she lets him enter their home and he bows his head at an alter prepared for her dead husband. Moon says, "I can see everything in my heart," and she later has a vision of a glowing human spirit.
When rescued by Moon and her grandmother, it is implied that the story's hero lives with them in their small hut and that he has feelings for Moon. But no sexuality is ever seen.
This being a martial arts film, there is a stylized, choreographed violence portrayed in the majority of the movie's scenes. The combatants thud, slap and snap/crunch each other with dizzyingly fast kicks and punches while brandishing numerous swords, a couple of spears and any other object they can get their hands on that looks like it might maim or kill.
Before the competitions, each fighter has to sign a "death waiver." Clearly the filmmakers want us to know that somebody might not make it through the next round of destruction. But the bodily ruin that would happen in reality, rarely does here. Except for a few bruises and a bloody nose or two, most battlers prove remarkably resilient.
There are a few exceptions, however.
Master Qin's death is intense. After a rollicking battle which results in splintered metal swords and ripped clothing, Huo lands a deadly chest strike (the one his dad dared not use). The force literally ripples Qin's back. The big final battle finds a poisoned Huo vomiting blood. And one fight shows a man tumbling down from a 30 foot height and landing on his face. (Somehow he gets up and limps away.) A bloody fight between two boys is also disturbing.
Crude or Profane Language
One subtitled "son of a b--ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
After Huo's reappearance, Nong Jinsun offers him a drink. But Huo refuses saying, "I stopped drinking a long time ago. ... I've learned from my mistakes."
Small cups of sake are consumed at a number of celebrations and in several toasts. In one scene, as Huo is provoking Master Qin, he drinks cup after cup of sake building himself into a rage.
During the climactic battle, poison is put into Huo's tea.
Other Negative Elements
Right around 600 BC, Loa Tzu, the father of Taoism said, "Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless." Jet Li's Fearless is built around this idea. And Li does a fine job (even with subtitles) of helping us see and emotionally connect with Huo's journey toward understanding and acting on it.
Li plays a hero we can root for, in spite of the fact that we (Westerners) are sort of the bad guys. His fight scenes are intricate and graceful and flow with their own kind of dancing beauty. Granted, the rest of the cast does just seem to be along for the ride. But that's OK. Because this film packs in more action than most other movies of its ilk and the cast needs primarily to be skilled in martial arts (or enormously muscled) and acting talent can be somewhere down the list.
Trying to decide what to think about Fearless? For once, it's not that complicated—a credit to Jet Li and director Ronny Yu for not loading up on foul language and sex. Fearless is what it is. A martial arts movie. It features lots of people kicking each other in the face. Creatively. And repeatedly. Loa Tzu, that man of many quotes, also said, "Stop thinking and end your problems." And isn't that what a pure martial arts movie is all about? Don't think, just duck.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jet Li as Huo Yuanjia; Jon T. Benn as Nong Jinsun; Masato Harada as Mr. Mita; Nakamura Shido as Anno Tanaka
Ronny Yu ( Freddy vs. Jason)