Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that brings a new meaning to the phrase 'semi-regular'. Tempting and oddly appropriate though it might be to have a look at Tokyo Drift this week, let's stick to what we know and check out the latest offering from perennial 24LAS favourite Jet Li - Ronny Yu's Fearless.
Encouragingly, this is a subtitled Chinese movie which has managed to get itself a proper Western release with a minimum of studio interference - someone must have noticed how well Hero and House of Flying Daggers did a year or two ago. It purports to be a biographical drama about the near-legendary Chinese folk hero Huo Yuanjia (played, as if you need telling, by the pint-sized powerhouse from Beijing), who lived round about the turn of the 19th century. Quite how historically accurate this movie is I don't know, but let's just say I have my doubts.
Anyway, the thing kicks off with some audience-reassuring brutality - China is under the thumb of nasty foreigners and, in an attempt to break the will of the people, they have arranged a demonstration of their superiority as the top fighters from France, Germany and Britain take on China's greatest kung fu master, Huo. Yes, the contest is blatantly unfair, but that doesn't stop Jet putting the smackdown on them in spectacular style and fairly short order. The concluding bout against the predictably ferocious-but-honourable Japanese champion (an eyecatching performance in a small role from Shido Nakamura) is saved for the climax as the movie jumps back thirty years to show the formative years of our boy.
To be honest the childhood years stuff is fairly sickly, mainly because Huo himself was apparently a sickly boy prone to asthma and thus banned from martial arts training by his father (played by Collin Chou from the Matrix sequels). It's also quite unfortunate that while this is a fairly violent movie, none of the violence is quite as cringe-inducing as the quality of the child acting. But things pick up soon enough as Huo grows up into Jet, becomes a kung fu master and - driven by his memories of his father's shameful weaknesses, like mercy and humility, that sort of thing - sets about making a name for himself as a proper Five Fingers of Death merchant. Yes, he's arrogant and self-centred, a bad son to his dear old mum and a bad father to his cute little daughter.
Well obviously this is bad news for them, but it's good news for the audience as it means Jet is nearly constantly in fights that are as good as any from his recent movies: inventive and convincing ones that are thankfully not obviously reliant on CGI or everyone involved constantly dangling on the end of wires. However he picks one fight too many which leads to disaster for those closest to him and a chastened Huo wanders off a broken, penitent figure. There is, of course, only one solution to this sort of personal trauma in action movies and that's a lengthy sojourn in a remote village learning to be happy again, accompanied by a hint of romance with a cute blind village chick (I can't track down for certain the name of the actress here, but rest assured she is very cute). As ever, one can only be grateful to those metropolitan and extremely rich film creative-types for revealing that the true secret of happiness and success actually lies in extreme poverty and constant back-breaking labour...
Jet's bucolic sabbatical eventually concludes and he wanders off back home to pay his respects to his family, only to find the place in bad shape - foreign devils everywhere, looking down on the Chinese and their culture! Harnessing his still-honed fighting skills to his newfound inner serenity, Jet resolves to strike a blow for Chinese self-esteem! Well, several blows, truth be told. And quite a few kicks. And a hell of a whack with a lump of metal on a chain at one point. But who's counting...?
Long-term readers of this column (come on, it's not impossible...) may recall my frequent exasperation in the past where the English-language films of Jet Li have been concerned, simply because - with the exceptions of his work for Luc Besson - they've usually been rubbish in every department but the fight choreography. Fearless is a long way from being rubbish, but then again it's not English-language either. This brings a number of instant advantages - the most obvious one being that we're spared Jet Li putting the smackdown on his dialogue, which is never easy on the ear.
Another is that, being made in China, the makers of this film don't seem to think that just because it has a high martial arts content, it doesn't mean it can't also have characterisation and style and the occasional moment of thoughtfulness. That's not to say that Fearless is The Seventh Seal with added fisticuffs, but it's a vast improvement over most of the genre. For one thing, here it actually looks like Jet Li is a pretty good actor, which one would never have guessed from watching Cradle 2 The Grave or The One. He does a very respectable job of portraying the change in outlook Huo Yuanjia goes through, and isn't afraid to look unsympathetic in the early part of the film.
This is a handsomely mounted movie, with great production values and a genuine sense of time and place. Ronny Yu directs fluidly and inventively - but this shouldn't really be a surprise, as he has an English-language track record as well. Admittedly, these movies were dire and/or cheesy (The 51st State, Freddy Vs Jason), but this was mainly down to the scripts - but they both contained very effective action sequences. Here he gets a rather better script and the resulting movie is miles better. This isn't to say that the script is perfect, as there are irritating gaps in the story - Huo's father relenting and allowing him to train happens offscreen and is barely even referred to, along with his marriage - and the 'selfish warrior finds redemption' story of the first two thirds doesn't really seem, thematically or tonally, to have anything to do with the 'Huo takes on the gweilos and the guizi' plot that forms the climax of the movie. (It is a pretty good climax though...)
Rumours have abounded that Fearless will, in fact, be the last martial arts movie to be made by Jet Li1. If so, then he's finished on something of a high, as this is the classiest and most accessible thing he's done in absolutely ages. Even if you don't usually like kung fu movies, this may be worth a look.