For a while, 'Fearless' was touted as Jet Li's final film. As such, excitement ran high amongst the martial arts legend's fans (as well as critics), creating perhaps impossible expectations that no mere movie could fill. Unfortunately, when 'Fearless' finally did arrive it seemed like a letdown to many. The film received mixed notices, failed at the box office, and now resides rather firmly in the back shelf of Blockbuster's "Kung Fu" section.
Lucky for me, I got to see 'Fearless' devoid of any anticipation. Like so many much-anticipated but ultimately-derided films, 'Fearless' surprised me. It is not, perhaps, a great movie, but it is certainly fun, fast-paced, well-choreographed and plenty entertaining.
The story is a sort of fictionalized, fantasy version of vague historical origins. Li plays Chinese master Huo Yuanjia, an ambitious young fighter at the turn of the 19th century, just as Western influences were beginning to seep into mainland Asia. Yuanjia wants nothing more than to be the best fighter in the world, and as such, he pushes himself into a series of battles in a (some would say narcissistic) quest for fame and fortune. Unfortunately, a series of tragedy befalls him, and he retreats back to the land to renew himself spiritually. Eventually, like a sort of Eastern version of Rocky Balboa, he returns for one last triumphant fight -- only this time for nobility, not self-gratification.
Directed by Ronny Yu, 'Fearless' is a visually splendid film, if schizophrenic. Roughly the first half is pretty action-heavy, with bone-crunching fight scenes that Yu stages with great aplomb. The over-the-top sound effects hammer us while Li -- assuming the "final film" thing was real -- throws himself into the choreography with abandon. Unfortunately, fight fans will quickly fall into a coma after Yuanjia takes off on his dour spiritual quest, with another 30 minutes devoted to the character exploring his past and family connections (particularly some genuinely poignant moments with his daughter, played by Betty Sun), and a Yoda-like interlude under the tutelage of a Japanese fighter Shido Nakamura (Anno Tanaka). Yet it is precisely this detour before Yuanjia's big return that made me like 'Fearless.' Here's a martial arts film that dares to go beyond its action to attempt real depth and gravity. If it is not ultimately a transcendent film (such as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'), the intention is still laudable.
Likely some of the mixed reactions that greeted 'Fearless' in the United States were due to the neutered PG-13 version that played in domestic theaters. Thankfully, for the first time in high-def, Universal is issuing all three versions of the film -- the US PG-13 version, the unrated International edition, and Ronny Yu's Director's Cut. The Director's Cut is preferable, as it not only restores the snipped violence found in the international version, but also considerably expands the character development, which results in a longer if better-paced interpretation of the story. Yuanjia's spiritual quest now no longer seems like a subplot but the film's real dramatic through-line. More of the heart and soul of 'Fearless' has been restored, making it not a lost masterpiece but definitely a film that should be seen again if you've only see the PG-13 cut.
'Fearless' returns to high-def with this Blu-ray release, almost two years after Universal first released the film on HD DVD. The studio again gives us a 1080p/VC-1 encode, with all three versions presented on a single BD-50 dual-layer disc (via seamless branching).
Visible detail is excellent. 'Fearless' almost always looks three-dimensional, with excellent blacks and eye-popping contrast that can be extreme in terms of bright whites but nevertheless delivers great depth. Colors are very deep and saturated, and if stylistically a bit excessive, they certainly tickle the eyes. Fleshtones remain accurate throughout. Note that there were complaints of visual stutter on the previous HD DVD release (with most reports citing hardware issues), but I had no such problems here. The image held rock solid, and this is a sharp encode with no visible artifacts. The source is also spotless. 'Fearless' looks great on Blu-ray.
Universal has upgraded the audio for 'Fearless' to full-blown Mandarin DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). It's a nice step up from the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround of the previous HD DVD. (Note that the DTS-MA is available on the 140-minute Director's Cut version, plus the Unrated International and US Theatrical versions. All but the Director's Cut also offer English and French DTS 5.1 Surround options, each at 1.5mpbs.)
'Fearless' can be a cluttered mix, with the action scenes so layered with dialogue, discrete effects and score that it's as pummeling to the ears as the action on-screen. The rear soundstage here in DTS-MA is clearly superior to the HD DVD -- a few quick scene compares made it immediately apparent. Imaging is more pronounced between rear channels, and there is a slight if noticeable improvement in clarity and heftiness to the surrounds. Low bass also felt a big stronger. (Note that the DTS-MA comes out of the box at a louder volume than the DD-Plus, so make sure you level match or risk ear damage.) Unfortunately, dialogue can sometimes be obscured during the loudest scenes, more than on the Dolby track on the HD DVD. It's not massive but it's sometimes irritating. Otherwise, 'Fearless' offers quite the sonic workout on Blu-ray.
'Fearless' on HD DVD was not a particularly feature-rich disc, with only a couple of extras, namely a featurette and a single deleted scene. The featurette returns here (despite it not being listed on the back of the box), though the deleted scene, which came from the Director's Cut that's now provided on the Blu-ray, has not been repurposed here as a stand-alone extra.
'Fearless' has been criticized by some Jet Li fans, and critics certainly didn't swoon, but director Ronny Yu has delivered a forcefully choreographed spectacle of action that shouldn't disappoint martial arts fans. This Blu-ray delivers excellent video and audio, though the lack of much in the way of supplements drags down the overall rating. If you are just interested in the film, then by all means this Blu-ray is worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.