Fearless (retrospective)

And now we resume our schedule of Asian people kicking the crap out of each other.

0_big

Am I the only one who thinks this pose is more fitting to a Slap Fight?

Fearless (retrospective)

There’s a surprising dearth of genuine kung fu on the site, and Fearless (aka Jet Li’s Fearless, originally Chinese title “Huo Yuanjia”) is a great way to rectify that. It’s not a great film by any means: it’s full of cliches, it does a disservice to history, and it smacks vaguely of nationalism. But it doesn’t skimp on the ass-kicking, giving any fan plenty of kung fu awesomeness for his buck. And despite the shortcomings, it’s a genuinely heartfelt tribute to real-life Chinese hero Huo Yuanjia. It’s a fitting end for Jet Li’s career of making wushu epics, or at least it would have been if he’d actually kept to that promise.

Once again, since this film is quite agreeably packed with fights, we’ll be taking the macro view and doing a retrospective. Since (nearly) every fight is just the protagonist fighting against some opponent(s), the format will be altered accordingly, and first off introduce said protagonist:

  • Huo Yuanjia, a supremely talented martial artist & Chinese patriot. A prodigy who overcame asthma to follow in his beloved father’s footsteps, Huo (that’s his family name; Chinese naming conventions are the opposite of how Westerners’ work) is a master of wushu– a sort of offshoot of kung fu geared primarily towards sporting & competition rather than real-life offense & defense. At the beginning of the film, we meet Yuanjia as a serene & peaceful grand master, then flash back to show how he went from being an arrogant snot to a selfless hero; it’s a canny cinematic move, if not a new one. By most accounts, the real Huo Yuanjia was never such a dickhead even in his youth, but he really did dedicate much of his life to restoring Chinese cultural pride at a time when it was on the wane. Played by the incomparable Jet Li, who had also played Yuanjia’s fictional student Chen Zhen in Fist of Legend, 12 years previously.

Also note that the opening three fights will be bunched up into one. They’re three distinct fights and they’re all shown in their entirety, but they happen in quick succession and under the same circumstances, so we’ll save some space and a formatting headache by lumping them all together.

1-3) Suck It, Roundeyes

Huo Fights:

  • Peter Smith, a British boxer with sick mutton chops. Played by Jean-Claude Leuyer.
  • Han Herzon, a Belgian lancer with a bad attitude and a military dress uniform that doesn’t look optimized for combat. Played by Brandon Rhea (who according to IMDB actually did pass out wearing that outfit).
    • Armed with: A spear, which is noticeably longer than the similar one Huo Yuanjia brings along.
  • Anthony Garcia, a Spanish fencer. Played by Anthony De Longis.
    • Armed with: A European military saber. Yuanjia, meanwhile, packs a jian (Chinese straight sword) for their duel.

I don’t rightly know where these characters’ names or nationalities come from; they don’t seem to be mentioned in the cut of the movie I saw.

boxer lancer fencer

The Setup: We’re actually dropped into this thing right at the start of the movie with very little context; it will eventually be revealed that Huo Yuanjia, who has lately been making some serious waves by opening wushu school and re-invigorating Chinese pride, has been challenged to a series of diverse skill matches by an international conglomerate that’s currently throwing its weight around in his homeland.

At a public exposition, Huo agrees to consecutive matches against the three European champions and one Japanese fighter, which will come later. Both sides see a chance for a big win: given the overwhelming odds, if Huo triumphs it’ll be a major PR boost for wushu (and China); the foreign devils, meanwhile, ostensibly see this as a chance to put the little upstart Huo back in his place… but in reality, their intentions are far more sinister.

The main rule seems to be that the first one to fall wins.

The Fight(s): All three move quickly and quite continuously, giving the film’s opening a welcome charge of energy.

The match against Smith, the boxer, is shortest. He launches a lot of would-be haymakers, which Yuanjia avoids gracefully. Along the way, he delivers several small but surgical strikes to the larger man, and finally is able to take him down by chopping Smith to the face and, when he’s stunned, hitting him from above and sending him face-first into the mat.

Herzon lasts a lot longer than Smith, but takes more of a beating– including some painful shots to the ribs and slices on his pretty uniform. Despite having a longer spear, he too is outmaneuvered by Yuanjia, thanks to not just speed but some wire-assisted flips. Han gets increasingly agitated throughout the fight, and finally snaps his own weapon in half so he can go after Huo up close. He still can’t make a dent, though, and at one point Yuanjia even holds him at bay by suspending his spear’s tip less than an inch from Herzon’s neck, because now he has the reach advantage.

The silly laowai can’t accept that he’s clearly lost, and still charges away (after brushing Huo’s spear aside, of course). Soon enough, Yuanjia uses the haft of his spear to literally sweep Herzon off his feet. Disarmed and definitely defeated, he gets back up with rage in his eyes and it looks for a second like he’s going to attack his foe again out of spite, but he decides not to at the last second.

Good call.

Good call.

(Reminds me of one of the few good lines from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie: “Dashed unsporting! Probably Belgian.”)

The sword fight is the most dazzling of all, and Garcia actually does fairly well for a little while; he never does score a hit of his own but he gets awfully close. The two move with almost unbelievable speed and intensity.

Eventually, of course, Huo is able to find his openings. Displaying incredible precision, he slides his thin blade inside Garcia’s fencing gauntlet, cutting the troublesome thing off without harming the wearer in the process.

Don't ever play "Operation" with this guy.

Don’t ever play “Operation” against this guy.

Several furious exchanges after, Yuanjia pulls off a similarly smooth move when he takes possession of Garcia’s sword by slipping his own through Garcia’s hand guard. Much more amenable than his Belgian predecessor, Garcia accepts defeat like a man. (Maybe good sportsmanship is a tradition amongst fencing Spaniards.) The film cuts away just as Huo faces off against his final challenger, Anno Tanaka.

Meanwhile, we the audience have been shown a dazzling and diverse display of martial arts talent. In addition to starting an action movie off with a bang, these fights are critical in establishing the protagonist’s skill… and they do so not by facing him off against chumps but with genuinely skilled masters, who he nonetheless triumphs over with seemingly little difficulty. Making a fight look simultaneously easy and hard is a tough road to walk, but director Ronny Yu and choreographer Yuen Woo Ping execute it flawlessly here.

Almost as important to establish is Huo’s personality, and it shines through even in combat. Yuanjia moves with simple grace and conducts himself with humility & restraint, even when his foes become agitated. This is vital because it will establish a stark contrast between the aggression and outright meanness of the young Huo we will see soon enough in the film. (No guessing as to which of those personalities Jet Li, with his effortlessly likeable screen presence, is better at.)

Grade: B+

4) “My Dad Can Out Wire-Fu Your Dad”

Huo Fights: Actually, he doesn’t– not our Huo anyway. This is the only fight in the movie that doesn’t involve our hero. Instead, it’s Huo Endi, Yuanjia’s late father (in real life, Endi lived to be a very old man and even outlived Yuanjia), in an extended flashback. Huo Senior is a distinguished & respected martial arts instructor, who inspires equal parts admiration (for his sweet wushu prowess) and irritation (for forbidding him from learning the family trade) in his young, asthmatic son. Played by Collin Chou, aka Seraph from everyone’s least two favorite Matrix movies. Endi’s opponent is:

  • Zhao Zhongqiang, a local wushu competitor who’s a bit of a dick. Played by Zhao Zhonggang.
I don't know about you guys, but my money's on the Chinese guy with long hair

Don’t know about you guys, but my money’s on the Chinese guy with long hair

The Setup: Zhao and Huo have agreed to compete in a sanctioned leitai match. Not much to it, really.

Meanwhile, against his father’s wishes, young Yuanjia has not only attended the fight but wormed his way to the front of the crowd. He stands next to Zhao’s own son, and the two exchange trash talk throughout the battle.

The Fight: This one’s short but significant. Endi takes the lead early on, and while Zhao is no slouch, he’s clearly outclassed by Huo. None of the moves are as fancy or impressive as what we saw in the previous clashes, but at the same time, you can see why Endi’s stately and powerful presence would inspire his boy so much.

Unfortunately, when Endi gets the chance to finish the fight decisively, he pulls back his blow– a devastating punch to the head– at the last second, and suspends his fist there.

FINISH HIM

FINISH HIM

Zhao takes advantage of his mercy, and lands a surprise kick that knocks Endi out of the elevated ring. Rather than protesting his opponent’s dishonor, Huo respectfully salutes and accepts his loss. He understands that protecting life is a victory in itself, a lesson his kid is going to learn the hard way later on.

But for now, Yuanjia can’t understand it. Later on he challenges Zhao’s sneering brat to a fight, and of course loses horribly. (It’s not substantial enough to warrant inclusion here, but it’s still less silly than the Karate Kid remake.)

Grade: B-

5) Yuanjia Gets High

Huo Fights: Didn’t catch the name, but it’s implied that he’s the son of Zhao Zhongqiang– the one who beat up little kid Yuanjia earlier. If so, according to the credits he’s Zhao Jian, and played by Ma Zhongxuan. An arrogant and crude, but still skilled fighter. Before the match begins, he’s bragging about his undefeated record.

The Setup: In the years since his ignominious defeat, Yuanjia sneakily learned his father’s wushu style and has been making a name for himself in local competitions, hoping to one day become the “champion of Tianjin.” Also in the meantime, his father has passed away, he’s had a young daughter and has become a widower, but what he’s most focused on is his martial arts accomplishments.

He attends this arranged leitai match with Zhoa Jian, which for some reason takes place atop an absurdly elevated platform– like three stories up, and accessible only by rope or or a series of very unsafe “stairs.”

I mean, would it even be worth the effort to build the thing just for this?

I mean, would it even be worth the effort to build the thing just for this?

Jian is already waiting for his foe up there, and taunts him as he approaches. Even worse form: he tries to attack Yuanjia as he climbs to the platform.

The Fight: Yuanjia avoids the cheap shots pretty well, and once he sets foot on the platform they waste little time getting to business.

This match is a lot closer than anything we’ve seen thus far. Huo’s skill is certainly on display, but he’s up against a particularly ornery and savage opponent. Zhao’s specialty seems to be (and he brags about it later on) his physical sturdiness; it’s not that Huo never hurts him, but he does land plenty of body & limb blows that Jian is able to seemingly absorb while barely flinching. Little wonder he favors a combat arena where keeping your footing is a priority.

Picture2

Meanwhile, Yuanjia himself nearly takes a dive on several occasions, but keeps returning to safety thanks only to some quick reflexes.

After some more taunts, the two go at it again and Huo gains the advantage when he kicks a wooden plank from the floor hard enough to make it go vertical, and punches through it to hit Jian.

Picture3

Pressing his lead, Yuanjia knocks Jian very nearly out of the ring, but he barely holds on to the scaffolding, and is able to keep Huo at bay for a while using a scratching “Tiger Claw” technique (which Huo derisively calls “cat’s paw”).

After another near tumble, Huo is able to come back strong by breaking several of Zhao’s fingers on each hand. This emphasizes something that will come in useful for Yuanjia in the future– his ability to strike surgically against opponents who seem otherwise implacable. (We already see a little bit of that in the fencing duel.)

Zhao refuses to give up even after the injuries to his hands, but after some more clashing, Huo finally knocks him down with repeated fists to the groin area.

Above: pretty much the last place you want Jet Li's fists to go near

Above: pretty much the last place you want Jet Li’s fists to go near

Yuanjia panics at the last second with concern for Jian, but the warrior’s fall is broken by a few ropes and his landing ends up being non-lethal (but probably painful as hell). Now, all leitai matches are accompanied by a “death waiver” which both parties sign in order to dismiss legal liability if either perishes in the match, but it’s telling that Huo isn’t so far gone that he’s genuinely willing to kill an opponent. Yet.

Speaking of which, aside from being a thoroughly entertaining little duel, what really sticks out about this fight is the difference from the Huo Yuanjia we saw at the opening of the movie. Not just in skill level, but in his conduct and even his body language as he fights. He’s competent, but his attacks are often desperate & angry, rather than calm & graceful. At other times he’s cocky and just flat out mean. Clearly something’s going to change soon in order for him to become the man from the opening.

Grade: B

6) Montaaaaaaaage!

Huo Fights: A whole lotta people, actually. Yuanjia’s victory over Zhao gave him a major boost, which leads to his skills and status (and arrogance) increasing as he takes on ever more opponents. The tried & true way to cinematically convey all this in a brief, efficient and entertaining way is, well, you know.

The Setup: Er, see above. They’re all leitai matches. None so high as the last match, fortunately.

Picture1 Picture2 Picture3

The Fight(s): The first significant challenger we see Huo mow down is a big ugly guy with a self-described “head of iron,” which Huo nonchalantly kicks the top of and sends him down. He also fights two acrobatic brothers who fight in tandem, taking them out with consecutive blows. He faces a dual saber-wielding swordsman with just a simple wooden stick, and wins the match by pinning both his foe’s arms behind his chest and using the short staff to “lock” them there.

Picture4

Probably the most entertaining and illustrative bit of the montage is his brief clash in the rain, which he cockily performs one hand because his other hand’s casually holding an umbrella– leaving his opponent humiliated, beaten up and soaked.

Immediately after one display of poor sportsmanship, Yuanjia declares that the process of taking challengers on consecutively (as apparently they’d been doing) is going too slow, and invites everyone who’s already signed a waiver to step on up. About two dozen of them do, and he takes them all on simultaneously. There’s about a minute or so of furious combat, and Huo emerges not just victorious but completely unscathed, taking his post-match tea without even breathing hard. He comes off like, well, like a hero in a kung fu movie. Which is fun, but the movie’s going to show us there’s a dark side to that sort of thing.

Grade: B

7) Just A Big Misunderstanding

Huo Fights: Chin Lei (or “Qin” Lei, depending on your subtitles), a highly respected martial arts competitor and instructor in Tianjin. He and Huo are rivals and have had verbal altercations before, but have yet to fight competitively. Played by Chen Zihui.

Both Chin and Huo come packing huge, curved Chinese sabers. Chin’s has a bunch of rings on the flat side which presumably serve some practical function.

The Setup: A bunch of Huo Yuanjia’s students have brought one of their badly beaten friends to their instructor, saying that Chin Lei was the one who attacked him. So Huo heads off to confront Chin publicly, death waivers in hand– at a restaurant owned by Huo’s old friend, Nong Jinsun. Lei tries to demur and explain, but Yuanjia is so belligerent he makes the fight inevitable.

Picture1

What Huo’s students don’t tell him, unfortunately, is that the kid who Lei beat up actually provoked Lei by insulting his wife. But of course that’s beside the point; Huo’s real motive here is his own pride & ambition, not his students’ well-being.

The Fight: This is easily the most involved, prolonged and emotionally charged battle of the film thus far, and probably the film as a whole. In addition to the dazzling choreography on display, there’s a vague & uncomfortable feeling of inevitability. Even prior to the later revelation that Yuanjia doesn’t know the whole context, it’s still quite obvious that he’s in the wrong. And while a part of us still wants him to win (because he’s the hero, and played by lovable movie star Jet Li), we also know deep down that he shouldn’t. The excitement mixed with dread makes for an uneasy experience.

The fight starts out furious right off the bat, and only escalates from there.

Picture2

The two break tables & chairs, they knock each other down and fight while prone on the ground, they fight while one of them is suspended by his feet from the ceiling. They fight on multiple floors, running & leaping with the aid of the type of wirework that’s fantastic but not ridiculous. They leave shallow wounds and each have a lot of close calls. They fight ugly.

Eventually, Huo’s sword gets its topped chopped off.

Picture3

He still fights with the diminished weapon, but it’s clear he has to be more defensive. Shortly after, their fight brings them down to a small pond in the middle of the restaurant’s ground floor (this is the most insanely huge and complex restaurant ever; it’s practically an apartment complex), and the rest of his blade is broken off as well.

He’s able to disarm Chin by grabbing onto the rings on his sword right after dodging a slash, and then flinging it away. The fight gets even uglier when it’s hand to hand, and eventually leads the pair into a nearby storeroom/pantry. As we approach the inevitable conclusion, Ronny Yu pulls away most of the music cues and adds some extra slow motion for the more brutal blows. Huo becomes increasingly aggressive and almost deranged, so desperate is he to win.

Finally gaining an advantage, Yuanjia batters Lei to the point where he can barely stand, and, seeing him vulnerable, delivers the tragically unnecessary coup de grace: a devastating punch to the chest, right on top of Chin’s heart.

Picture5

Leaving his opponent unmoving on the ground, Huo shakily exits the restaurant. He seems to on some level grasp the enormity of his actions, because he’s still in a state of shock even as he reunites with his celebratory students. The next day, Yuanjia’s now-alienated friend informs him that Lei died from his injuries, a few hours after the fight. The news causes Huo to vomit, and Jinsun bitterly rubs it in, telling Yuanjia he’s “finally the champion of Tianjin.”

But the real kicker comes shortly after, when Chin’s godson takes revenge by murdering Huo’s mother and daughter. He waits for Huo to track him down, then he confesses and kills himself right there, denying Huo even the satisfaction of killing him. And as a cherry on top, Huo’s students soon come clean about the reason Chin Lei beat one of them up. Oof. Southwest Airlines should have contacted this guy for their old ad campaign.

In any case, the fight is superb. Nearly flawless choreography as the battle escalates and spreads throughout the building. The closeness in each combatants’ skill levels is very well-communicated: you really do get the sense that on a different day, if one or two things had been different, Chin would have been the winner. But he wasn’t, and now Huo Yuanjia has to live with it.

Grade: B+

7) “Herc-u-lees, Herc-u-lees, Herc-u-lees!

Huo Fights: Hercules O’Brien, an American bodybuilder and wrestler. How much O’Brien is he?

MILES O’Brien!

28425-jet-li-fearless

I will NEVER apologize for that joke.

As you can see, Hercules (what a lucky coincidence his parents named him that!) is absolutely massive. An arrogant & almost bestial warrior, O’Brien has been performing public feats of strength (dragging train cars and such), as well as taking down local challengers left & right. Played by Nathan Jones, a real-life professional wrestler and strongman with a 6’11 frame. (And from Australia, not America. Most of the Western actors in this movie don’t play the nationalities of their characters, which is probably only fair payback for how Hollywood uses Asians interchangeably.)

The Setup: Due to the aftermath of the previous fight, Huo Yuanjia had what was more or less a nervous breakdown. After wandering in the wilderness for a while and nearly dying, he was taken in by a remote village full of kindly cliches, and slowly rebuilt himself, this time as a more peaceful and humble man.

Returning to his hometown, he makes amends with those he has wronged, but is distressed to see what’s become of the city due to a sudden influx of foreign (mostly Western) business & government interests. O’Brien’s physical dominance in particular has led him to declare China as the “weak men of the East.” Seeing a chance to put his skills for violence to selfless use, Yuanjia challenges Hercules to a public fight.

The two meet in a boxing/wrestling-style ring, surrounded by a crowd of bloodthirsty fans. Theannouncer, a Chinese man who has clearly gone over to the dark side (he dresses in Western clothes and has learned passable English), asks Huo to sign the death waiver. Huo politely declines, and asks the official to tell O’Brien that this should be a friendly competition without lethal intent.

The sycophantic announcer deliberately mistranslates so he can rile the wrestler up, humorously telling O’Brien that Huo said he “wants to kick your butt.”

Pictured.

Pictured.

The Fight: The perceived insult merely amuses O’Brien, and he laughs as he shrugs off his robes to reveal his mountainous physique.

Not unreasonably confident in his power, O’Brien allows Huo to casually place a hand on his chest in order to execute a probing attack. But his amusement turns to rage when Huo’s point-blank palm strike actually knocks the giant back a few feet, kicking the fight off in earnest.

In a lesser movie, this could have easily turned into a “nimble kung fu warrior easily avoids and humiliates a stupid lumbering beast” situation. And indeed, Yuanjia spends much of the fight either barely evading O’Brien’s devastating strikes or trying to squirm out of his powerful grasp. But he’s not always successful, and has more than his share of close calls.

“No it’s okay, I’ve got him right where I want him!”

“No, it’s okay, I’ve got him right where I want him!”

Multiple times Huo is successfully picked up or grappled by the bigger man, and he has to think fast in order to escape from or minimize the damage he’s about to sustain. The film goes out of its way to communicate the genuine danger of Hercules’ size & power, which is both laudable and realistic– real fighters emphasize that all the skill in the world won’t do you much good if someone much bigger & stronger traps you.

Here, Huo largely neutralizes the wrestler’s abilities by using unexpected or surgical strikes to escape the holds. This includes slipping out of an elevated chokehold by twisting his leg off of Hercules’ arm, and breaks out of a later hold by digging int0 the giant’s sides with his fingertips.

He picked this trick up from his Indian pal, Mola Ram

He picked this trick up from his Indian pal, Mola Ram

There’s even a brief sequence early on where Hercules slams the his Chinese foe up against the ropes, and they have an extended back & forth grapple where Huo keeps breaking free only to be repeatedly re-seized, helpless in a small space against Hercules’ strength. Even a veteran wushu master has to struggle against a crazed bodybuilder.

When both combatants are upright, Huo is constantly on the move to avoid O’Brien’s reach, and several times uses his opponent’s charging momentum against him for some nifty throws, with occasional surgical strikes to less protected areas. The one time he tries a force-on-force attack directly on the American’s chest, the impact seems to hurt Yuanjia more than it does Hercules.

As the fight wears on, Huo is able to grab Herc’s hand and yank it back painfully, but the colossus breaks free of the hold by scooping up Huo and throwing him across the ring. Wasting little time, he tries for a big finish by quickly climbing to the top turnbuckle and coming down on Yuanjia with a body splash. It happens too fast for Huo to get up, but not fast enough that he can’t put up his knee to negate the impact and, even worse, extend his elbow to within less than an inch from where O’Brien’s neck lands.

Picture4

Knowing that O’Brien sees that Huo could have crushed his wind pipe, Yuanjia assumes the fight is over, and tries to leave the ring respectfully. Hercules, enraged even more by having the crowd turn against him, is having none of it, and pulls him back into the ring. After a brief clash, Huo is able to kick O’Brien over the ropes and out of the ring… right onto where an earlier impact had exposed a set of heavy nails. But just before they would have slammed right through the American’s bald skull, Huo braces Hercules with his foot and pulls him to safety.

"I saw my whole life flash before my eyes! Even worse, it was mostly the gym and protein shakes."

“I saw my whole life flash before my eyes! It was mostly the inside of gyms.”

Finally realizing he’s outclassed, Hercules visibly suppresses his Beast Mode, and admits defeat. He gives a traditional Chinese gesture of respect, and enthusiastically hoists Huo Yuanjia’s hand in the air as the crowd cheers.

Again, a new and inventive type of fight for the movie. Fast, intense, relatively believable and with quite the rousing ending, this battle is everything it needs to be. Especially at this point in the movie, when there’s been so much gloom & sadness beforehand, and Huo himself needs a meaningful victory. He’s gone from ending lives to saving them.

Grade: A

9) Huo Yuanjia’s Last Stand

Huo Fights: Anno Tanaka, a Japanese champion. Though a veteran fighter, he’s noticeably younger than Yuanjia. Intense & competitive, but very honorable. In fact, prior their fight, the two enjoyed a friendly discussion over tea, and come to respect each other. Played by Nakamura Shido.

vkFrxIagF_1187214695

They became so friendly, they even hold hands like this in public

For the first half of the fight, he’s armed with a katana sword, while Huo Yuanjia wields a three-section staff.

The Setup: Remember, this movie does the thing JJ Abrams loves so much where it starts towards the end, then rewinds to the beginning, catches up, and then finishes. So now we’re back to the final part of the tournament, with Huo about to face off with his Japanese counterpart.

Tanaka finds the whole thing shady, and openly distrusts his zaibatsu handler. As the two meet in the arena, Tanaka offers to re-schedule their fight for another day, when he’s more rested. Huo politely declines, saying he prefers it this way. (And it’s not like he broke a sweat taking down those white guys, anyway.)

Fearless2006-Still2

The Fight: The battle is crazy intense right from the start. Tanaka is excellent with his katana (some online research indicates he uses it less like an actual kendo swordsman would and more like a Chinese straight sword), but Huo is more than a match with his set of super nunchaku, using them to fend off his opponent in all sorts of creative ways.

At one point he even manages to encircle Tanaka with it, but he breaks free immediately. In the ensuing struggle, they manage to pull a Hamlet and each ends up holding the other’s weapon. Yuanjia proves adept enough with the samurai sword, but Tanaka can’t do anything more than basic defense with the complicated staff, and to the audience’s delight he even manages to whack himself in the face.

The pair respectfully exchange weapons and begin anew, this time with notably more gravitas. Tanaka is soon able to cut through one of the staff’s connective chain and then another, which fortunately still leaves Huo with two metal clubs.

 It's kinda like Mitch Hedberg's joke about how an escalator can never "break," it can only become stairs.

It’s kinda like Mitch Hedberg’s joke about how an escalator can never “break,” it can only become stairs.

One furious exchange leaves the two with their weapons simultaneously stopping in front of each other’s throats, ending the first round in a draw. They retire to their corners to prepare for the next portion which will be hand-to-hand.

But unfortunately while everyone was gawking at the previous clash, someone surreptitiously switched out Yuanjia’s tea with another, identical-seeming cup. We don’t see who, but we know that the international conglomerate had something “special” planned to ensure Huo did not survive the day. This is historically “accurate” inasmuch as it reflects a very unpopular but unproven theory about the real Huo Yuanjia’s death.

Yuanjia does indeed drink it during the break– hey, who drinks tea in the middle of an intense athletic competition, anyway? Isn’t the stuff supposed to soothe & calm you? I know they hadn’t invented Gatorade yet, but sheesh– and returns to the ring. It’s not long at all before something goes wrong.

“Argh, and I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t have matches the morning after Taco Night!”

“Argh, and I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t have any more matches the morning after Taco Night!”

Though the round begins well at first, Huo’s vision immediately gets blurry and his reactions slow down. He barely blocks a simple blow to the chest, and vomits up a huge amount of blood.

Tanaka can immediately see that something is up, and he steps away. The referees suspend the fight, and everyone–including Tanaka– urges Yuanjia to leave and go to a hospital. But he demurs: knowing the end is near no matter what he does, he’d rather finish what he started, facing the end with courage. He urges his followers to not take revenge (which is funny, because, again, in 1994 Jet Li made a movie entirely about a Huo Yuanjia student who did just that), and heads back into combat, despite Tanaka’s warning that he won’t hold back.

The crowd chants Huo Yuanjia’s name, but things start to go a lot worse for him. He fights desperately and actually surprisingly well for a man on his last legs, but still takes a beating. The sad music overwhelms most of the sound effects, emphasizing the tragedy that’s happening now instead of excitement. Huo continues to hold his ground, but takes a devastating punch to the chest and staggers. With the last of his strength, he lunges in when Tanaka leaves an opening and uses the same twisting death blow to the heart he finished off Chin Lei with…

Picture8

… only he stops it just short of deadly impact, allowing it to harmlessly land on Tanaka’s robe. With that, he smiles and collapses. Tanaka sees how he was spared from a fatal blow, and stops the referee from calling the fight in his favor. He instead declares Huo Yuanjia to be the winner, helps Huo back up, and bows to him. The crowd erupts in cheers and Yuanjia is swarmed by his friends.

Tanaka storms out and confronts the Japanese businessman from his corner, telling him that his dishonorable actions have made him “a disgrace to Japan.” It’s a nice nod away the overt nationalism that has often plagued kung fu movies– Tanaka’s words here confirm that Tanaka is not the aberration of his country for being good, it’s the businessman who’s an aberration for being bad.

Meanwhile, as the crowd venerates Huo Yuanjia, he looks upward through the building’s skylight, gazing at the stars as he dies. His ascent to the afterlife is symbolized by a ghostly vision of him practicing wushu forms on an open field: a pure expression of martial artistry free from violence. Aw.

Grade: A-

Fearless isn’t the be-all-end-all period action flick it aspires to be, but it’s nonetheless mandatory viewing for the diehard action fan. Get on it if you haven’t already, and praise Saint Jet.

Coming Attractions: Know who’s an even bigger badass than Jet Li?

It's-a-him.

It’s-a-him.

Advertisements