I don’t know if that title means “Jet Li’s” in the sense of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA or as a less formal way of saying Jet Li is Fearless. Neither one makes complete sense because Jet Li is not the director (that would be the great Ronny Yu) and his character is not named Detective Jack Fearless, he is playing a guy named Huo Yuanjia who it turns out is a real life martial artist (1869-1910) who united the various factions of Chinese martial arts to form “wushu.” He’s the guy who is supposed to be the teacher of the fictional character Bruce Lee played in BRUCE LEE’S FIST OF FURY and the one Jet played in JET LI’S FIST OF LEGEND. This new movie is a very mythology-ized version of the guy’s life but does have many elements that are based on actual historical events. But they are honest enough not to say “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” in the ads, despite the continual lowering of the standards for what counts as a true story. (The latest chapter: the prequel to the crappy remake of a completely fictional movie that was vaguely inspired by what Ed Gein did to dead bodies now counts as a true story.)
Instead, the hook they’re going for with JET LI’S FEARLESS is “Jet Li in his final martial arts epic.” This claim is not really a true story either, or at least it’s up to interpretation. If you read interviews with Mr. Li, he is saying that he considers this his final statement on wushu, so he does not plan to do more movies about wushu. But he will do action movies with martial arts in them and he hasn’t even ruled out historical epics with martial arts. Just not movies specifically about him being a martial artist.
Will he even stand by that promise? Most people don’t seem to think so, but I am willing to take his word for it. Jet Li is made of different mettle than most of us. The dude survived a Tsunami. This is a guy who promised his wife if she got pregnant he would stop doing movies for the entire pregnancy and spend that time with her. Not only did he keep that promise, he dropped out of a little movie called CHOW YUN FAT’S CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON in order to do it. So there is reason to believe he means what he says.
Of course, nobody is gonna complain if he does another one, unless it’s terrible. But if this is the last one I think it’s a good one to end it on, and I’ll explain why. That’s what I do.
I don’t think there’s a huge buzz on this movie, and I’m not surprised. The fights (choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping) are great, very traditional, lots of weapons (including the guaranteed Vern-pleaser the 3-section staff) no flying or magic powers. Most of the fights are competitive, on a platform or in a ring, although there’s one in a restaurant that gets totally destroyed. I think these are very good fights but in the spirit of honesty I must say that these are not amazing, knock you on your ass fights that are trying to one-up everything that’s come before it. It’s not like that scene in TONY JAA’S TOM YUM GOONG THE PROTECTOR where there is a continuous 4 minute tracking shot as Tony Jaa goes up stairs fighting dozens of guys, and you feel like this has actually advanced the fight scene to a new level never attempted before. It would be fun if Jet wanted to make a movie saying, “Oh yeah Tony, that’s what you got? 4-minutes of elbows and throwing dudes over ledges? I see your 4-minutes and raise you 3. Let me show you how the fucking GROWN-UPS do it!” That would be fun but that’s not what Jet is up to here. It’s a more low key type of fight where you admire the grace of the fighting and the choreography and that’s about it.
And while Ronny Yu has created a very pretty and gentle historical feel, this doesn’t have the jawdropping cinematism of JET LI’S HERO, the awe-inspiring imagery and stunning beauty that might equal CROUCHING TIGER type crossover appeal. That is another thing I like in movies, but this isn’t that type of movie.
What it is, the thing that is great about it, is the story. The movie opens with a huge fight expo where Jet is taking on a bunch of different assholes representing England, colonialism, and the white man. It’s an unfair fight because he has to take on all of these guys one after the other, but he feels it is important for the pride of all of China. We see him win all of the fights except one, he still has to fight a Japanese guy named Tanaka. But then it skips back to his childhood.
(One thing I don’t understand about these movies. How the HELL do they get their braids so long? Okay with adults I can understand, they’ve kept it going for years. But even the little kids have braids down to their asses. They didn’t have weaves back then, did they? I wonder what their secret is.)
The scenes with him as a kid are cute, especially since he’s a little brat who can’t fight and gets his ass kicked. His father is a great fighter though, and he sneaks out to watch him compete. But he’s completely shocked and humiliated when his father stops himself from making what could be a lethal blow, and loses the match. What the fuck, dad? I want to see winning! I want to see asskicking! Kill that bitch! So he vows that he will become a great fighter and, unlike dad, will be undefeated. At that age he doesn’t understand what the fuck his dad is doing, but by the end of the movie he will get it.
Instead of another story about a guy getting revenge for the death of somebody (as great as those stories are) this one is kind of the opposite. Adult Jet, after becoming a great, undefeated competitive fighter, becomes an egomaniac who chooses his disciples based on if they can drink well. They dress all in black (like Johnny Cash, not like goths) and go drinking after every fight, as well as after anything other than a fight. They are almost more of a fraternity than a clan.
But Jet one day finds himself fighting another master for what appear to be honorable reasons, and he kills the guy. In alot of martial arts movies it would be cool that he killed him, but in this one Jet is so upset by what he did that it makes him puke. And when he finds out that he’s been misled by his drunken kung fu fraternity, and the guy REALLY didn’t deserve to die, he is pretty pissed off. Now he’s not really a martial arts hero. HE is the guy who killed your master. So he can hardly go for revenge.
Instead it’s him that gets avenged. The godson of the dude he killed goes to his place, kills his daughter and his mom. Not cool. So he storms over to the godson’s place. This guy has innocent female relatives as well. This is a perfect opportunity to keep the cycle of violence rolling. He almost does it but, like his father did all those years ago, pulls his punch.
Then he basically turns into Gary Sinise after Vietnam in TOM HANKS’S FORREST GUMP. He leaves town, stumbles around drunk and depressed, grows his hair back, ends up washed up in a river somewhere. He gives up on life. Eventually some people in a nice farming community help him out, try to cheer him up, and give him the nickname Ox. There is a nice blind lady named Moon who he falls in love with. He not only learns useful skills like how to plant crops, he learns to take a moment to just stand and breathe in the breeze and appreciate nature’s beauty and shit. Like the Hulk in ERIC BANA’S HULK contemplating the lichen in the desert.
Eventually, of course, he decides to go back to fighting to help Chinese people be proud in the face of continued colonialism from the west. But he brings with him a new understanding of wushu, that it is a way to improve yourself and to bring people together, not to beat each other’s asses and prove how awesome you are.
Jet Li has been trying for a while now to make a movie that represents his Buddhist beliefs and his philosophy of the meaning of martial arts. Even that crappy movie JET LI’S THE ONE he was talking about how he worked some of his Buddhist beliefs into the plot. JET LI’S HERO has kind of a non-violent message, and of course JET LI’S DANNY THE DOG aka JET LI’S UNLEASHED is even moreso. That’s the one where he’s raised as an attack dog and trained to go ape shit on everybody if his collar comes off. But then he gets away from his master and meets normal nice people, and has to learn how to not go ape shit anymore. I enjoyed the movie but it has a pretty huge weakness in the premise. As an audience, we sympathize with Danny the Dog and want him to achieve his goal of non-violence. But as Jet Li fans we also want to see him fight, especially in this more savage style he and Yuen Woo Ping created for this character. So it’s working against itself.
JET LI’S FEARLESS solves that problem because it’s not about street fights or forced competitions to the death. It’s about exhibitions, and about a character who tries to discourage competitions to the death. If it’s not to the death it’s fine, he can still do it without contradicting his values. This way he is able to achieve both his own goal (not kill somebody) and the audience’s goal (see Jet Li kick ass). Everybody wins.
One of the most memorable fights is against Hercules O’Brien, played by Nathan Jones. That is the almost 7 foot tall bald muscleman I was raving about from THE PROTECTOR. I hope he has an even bigger role in that WWE movie he’s doing. Somebody cast this guy as the president or something.
To me, JET LI’S FEARLESS achieves one of the best things you can do: make a movie about fighting where you somehow trick the audience into being emotionally invested in the story and not caring as much about the fights as what happens to the characters. I recently caught up with JET LI’S ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. This one is very similar. Both are based on tall tale versions of famous Chinese historical figures. Both have a more westernized, non-fighting friend who handles business. Both have fuck up disciples who need to be kept in line. And both movies are very much about preserving Chinese culture and pride during a historical period of westernization. ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA is more impressive on a technical level and probaly has more fighting. But personally I was more moved emotionally by FEARLESS. It feels like a more focused and sincere message from Jet Li to the world. So thank you Jet Li, and congratulations on your retirement.
- The real Yuanjia really did those competitions, really was poisoned, really fought a guy named Tanaka, and really was considered the winner despite a technical loss because he had stopped himself from making a fatal blow. There really was a Hercules O’Brien, but he actually never fought Yuanjia because he left the country before the match was scheduled to take place! Pussy.
- I was confused by that ending though, it seemed like he died from the poison and his spirit was with Moon, but then the text made it clear that he didn’t die until later.
- I hope Ronny Yu keeps making ridiculous BRIDE OF CHUCKY type American movies, but it’s good to see he can still make ’em classy. It’s been, what, eleven years? Finally he went back to Cantonese language epics and showed he still had the juice, despite being fired from SNAKES ON A PLANE. Basically, he went back to the old neighborhood and cleaned up the streets. Congratulations Ronny.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.