Li plays real-life kung fu legend HuoYuanjia. Founder in 1910 of the Jingwu Sports Federation, Huo became the nation’s pride when he trounced a series of gung-ho western opponents in a sporting showdown in Shanghai. But Huo was no angel – and Fearless charts the downs and ups of a hothead young fighter turned national hero. Little kid Huo wants to learn fighting from his kung fu teacher dad but is deemed too sickly. Beaten by bullies, he learns in private and becomes an accomplished but wayward fighter with followers of his own. But when his pride causes tragedy, it’s help from an unlikely source, a blind girl and her grandmother, which puts the heart into the man.
With choreography from the ubiquitous Yuen Woo Ping (The Matrix Trilogy, Kill Bill 1 & 2) there are plenty of fights, imaginatively staged. Appropriately for a biopic of a martial arts pro, the camera zooms in on lots of nifty kicks, grabs and punches, spicing-up proceedings. But director Ronny Yu (‘famous’ here for franchise-revivers Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason) lets Woo Ping think he’s still making The Matrix; consequently, Jet’s fights are jazzed up with completely unnecessary and obvious computer effects. With one genuine martial arts champion (Li) portraying another - why do that? Guffaws apart, it undermines the essential wow factor. The Forrest Gump style homilies, too, are jarring. But the film is a visual treat, wonderfully shot.
No classic, Fearless displays Li more as an actor than a supreme fighter. It’s Collin Chou (Seraph from Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions) who physically impresses in a brief and blistering fight. Li’s at his eye-popping best in the use of weapons – sword, staff and nunchuk – something we don’t see in his western outings. But his opponents are mostly wooden. Worse, they gurn and growl - cartoon-style - in cack-handed contrast to the civilized tea-drinkers of the east.
Fearless is choppy, cut down from a longer print - rough and ready rather than realistic. Visually impressive, and with a high fight-quotient, it entertains but short-changes in the drama department. For an exciting, credible biopic of another martial arts legend, see Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story instead.