March 29, 2006


The most anticipated Hong Kong movie of 2006, FEARLESSThe most anticipated Hong Kong movie of 2006, FEARLESS features Jet Li (issuing a well-timed statement that this would be his last wu shu movie), Michelle Yeoh, director Ronny Yu (THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR) and Yuen Wo-ping's action choreography and it seemed like an unbeatable brigade of badness, and not the kind of "badness" that smells funny but the kind of "badness" that Michael Jackson sings about. Right before it was released 40 minutes and Michelle Yeoh were cut from the film, but it went on to open big at the box office across Asia and people jumped up and down and cheered.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. Good and bad are relative terms when talking about movies, so maybe it would be more accurate to say that FEARLESS is a red-blooded, full-on, go-for-broke throwback to Hong Kong moviemaking of the early 90's. This was the era when Jackie Chan was making DRUNKEN MASTER 2, Jet Li was making ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and Ronny Yu had turned in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. For a few years Hong Kong seemed to wield an unbeatable fighting stance. It was making populist cinema that satisfied audiences - men, women, Westerner and Chinese - carried deeper resonance, was technically accomplished and profoundly entertaining. Not every movie was perfect, and some were misbegotten creatures that still slither and stink in the slimy sewers to this day, but the ones that got it on and banged the gong just right made some of the sweetest music in the world.

FEARLESS is one of those movies with a limp. Technically it can't be beat. The fight scenes throw down so hard you can't get up again, and the camerawork and technical credits are as slick as you want them to be. Jet Li has turned into a much better actor since UNLEASHED and while his performance is a bit theatrical it's also pretty magnetic, like watching footage of Henry Irving or any of the other great Victorian melodrama actors, stalking the boards and giving you goosebumps. The story is the life of martial arts hero Hua Yuanjia, a Chinese martial artist around the turn of the century who defeated a lot of foreign fighters and made Chinese people proud until, the story goes, he was poisoned by the Japanese and died. FEARLESS adds some backstory: Hua was an arrogant champion who killed a rival, went into seclusion in Thailand, learned to love the earth, and came back as an even bigger badass just when China needed him most.

But the downside of early 90's Hong Kong cinema is apparent in FEARLESS as well. From the whiny child actors, to the substitution of half-baked sentimental indicators for actual emotions, to the frustrating way the director finds it necessary to pander to the lowest common denominator just when the film's built up enough emotional capital to make a different choice, FEARLESS reminds the viewer again and again that Hong Kong cinema ran hot and cold, even at its best. Hua Yuanjia's grandkid is suing Jet Li and the film because he says it makes his dad look bad, but I don't know what movie he was watching - in FEARLESS Hua is practically a saint. In fact, he's St. Francis of Assisi, complete with a dissolute upbringing, an incident with a beggar, and a spiritual awakening in a foreign country. Then he sort of turns into Jesus with a public crucifixion. And underneath the weight of this kind of baggage, FEARLESS sags and cracks like an ancient train porter carrying a 500 lb trunk.

Ronny Yu is so focused on his aerial tracking shots and his massive sets that he missed a dozen different chances to give his supporting characters some shading. Nathan Jones and Shido Nakamura play Hua's two biggest opponents at the end, and while they're both shown to be jolly fellows who value good sportsmanship, they're little more than foils against which Jet Li unleashes a barrage of fortune cookie banalities. To squander an actor like Shido Nakamura (PING PONG, NEIGHBOUR NO. 13, and a bunch of Kabuki) in a role like this should earn the director at least a ticket and maybe a little time in movie jail where he can consider what he's done and vow to do better next time. Ronny Yu is not some kind of great auteur, but he has a distinctive style and BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR was a fortuitous fusion of his talents with a story that played to his strengths and pushed him out of his comfort zone. FEARLESS, unfortunately, is like wet paper, and unlikely to push anyone anywhere. Ronny Yu goes for the easy score again and again, whether it's Thai peasants taking some time to "feel the wind" which I at first thought meant that dinner had left them a little gassy, to the poisoning of Hua at the end.

Ultimately this is a refreshing throwback to the early 90's in Hong Kong, but it ain't no ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. It's almost a FONG SAI YUK, however, and these days that's more than enough.

March 29, 2006 at 12:01 PM in Reviews | Permalink


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Hmmmm, Grady, since I thought that FEARLESS compared favorably with the first couple of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINAs and FIST OF LEGEND. But, then, I thought that the intensely charismatic Shido Nakamura was given ample opportunity to shine and stand out in this film.

Anyways, for a true blast-from-the-past with attendant flaws, check out DON'T OPEN YOUR EYES. Now playing in cinemas, starring Alex Fong and Yuen Wah, produced by Wong Jing and directed by -- where had he been all these years?! -- none other than Clarence "NAKED KILLER" Fok/Ford! :b

Posted by: YTSL | Mar 29, 2006 6:51:18 PM

You think ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA was a better movie than FONG SAI YUK? Are you out of your mind? The CHINA films stand out as a series (with #2 being the best of them), but FONG SAI YUK is Jet Li's true masterpeice.

Posted by: Meathook | Mar 29, 2006 9:35:26 PM

I have to agree with Meathook. FSY is a far more satisfying movie than any one of the OUATIC films. As a package, however, the OUATIC films are tremendous!

Posted by: Paul | Mar 29, 2006 9:43:49 PM

I like FONG SAI YUK fine, but ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 1 - 3 are chewing over a lot of things, and doing so in a deeper manner than FSY which doesn't have much on its mind beyond its own self. And don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous self, but there are no moments in FSY like the rape of Rosamund Kwan, Master Yim's rise and fall, the rehabilitation of Clubfoot, or the riot at the White Lotus Temple that lend OUATIC 1 - 3 the kind of dark majesty they have in my eyes.

As a standalone, solid movie I think FSY is great but it doesn't have a single moment that is stamped as indelibly in my mind as some of the stuff from the OUATIC series because I think its scope is more limited. It blows away the targets it's aiming for, but the targets are much closer, and smaller, than OUATIC's targets, which aren't always hit.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Mar 30, 2006 11:50:47 PM

i luv u

Posted by: johnny | Sep 22, 2006 8:50:51 AM

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