I’m not going to lie to you people: I don’t care for martial-arts films. There’s just nothing there for me. Unless there’s a stitched pigskin involved, I have no desire to see a bunch of men kick the shit out of each other in the name of honor. In fact, in the two-plus years that Pajiba has existed, I’ve never once reviewed a martial-arts flick. Hell, the last one I saw was probably Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even that one didn’t do much for me — men kicking the shit out of each other on a high wire is no more appealing than watching them do the same in mid-air, on a ladder, under a table, in a box, with a fox, etc.
Indeed, assignments here generally have some correlation with the critic’s interest, which is why Jeremy usually winds up reviewing the martial arts films, while I get the lion’s share of sports flicks and shitty romantic comedies. But it’s nice to shake things up once in a while, to occasionally bring a new perspective to an unfamiliar genre, which is why — for instance — that Phillip got stuck with the Gridiron Gang last week (though he detests football) instead of yet another B-level horror flick. If you’re a hard-core martial-arts enthusiast or a huge fan of Jet Li, however, I suspect you’re probably going to see Fearless anyway. But if you don’t want to read a bunch of ignorant, self-indulgent, blasphemous hackery about a genre you adore, then I suggest you move right along to Jeremy’s respectful review of Hero, because I refuse to be wowed by a grown man who can stick his fist through a plank, even if it took him two decades to learn what would otherwise be a moderately impressive party trick.
So, Fearless (or Huo Yuan Jia, if you will) is about Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li), who was a big deal back in the day, a spiritual guru in China and founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation (and if that doesn’t put you to sleep right there, your interest level has already risen three levels higher than mine ever did). The film opens in Shanghai, in 1910, where Huo is engaged in some sort of tournament in which he faces off against an English boxer and some other fellas who brandish sharp weapons and whip them around really, really fast. And I’ll concede this: it’s pretty fucking impressive that no one gets an eye poked out. After he defeats the lot, Huo readies himself to face his top challenger, at which point the film flashes back 30 years, giving us the blessed opportunity to track Huo’s life from childhood.
As a tyke, Huo’s father was an instructor of a martial arts school, though he was apparently not skilled enough to win a fight by holding his palm two inches from a foe’s forehead and attempting some sort of Vulcan mind meld. That defeat, naturally, is humiliating to Huo, so he challenges a bully kid who is taunting him about his Pa. And, after the bigger kid beats the holy living crap out of him, Huo resolves never to lose another fight again, using revenge as his sole motive; and if we know anything from Confucius, it’s that revenge is not cool.
Twenty-five years later, Huo meets the bully again and does, indeed, thrash the living tar out of him, though I must say he takes a lot of cheap shots at the groin (clearly, Ultimate Fighting Championship rules were not in effect in turn-of-the-century China). Of course, winning that match is not redemptive enough for Master Huo. He wants to be number one, bitches, and all the maxims his elders toss at him about how winning isn’t everything don’t assuage his blood thirst. Indeed, the more fights he wins, the more cocksure he gets. He even develops a group of hangers-on that would make Vincent Chase jealous — though all they seem to care about is his ability to pick up the bar tab — and his head swells accordingly (and you might be surprised to know that emo haircuts were all the rage during that time).
Eventually, Master Huo does challenge and defeat the number-one fighter, though the guy has to resort to breaking a lot of nice vases to do so (pity). What he doesn’t really mean to do, however, is deliver the death blow, and doing so sends Master Huo on one helluva bender. So, he pretty much does what anyone would do after killing a man and discovering just how lonely it is at the top: He gets the hell out of Dodge (or Tienstsin, whatever) and becomes a back-to-the-lander! Yep. He grows a beard, finds a nice young pixie-girl who’ll comb his hair for him, and discovers what really matters in life: horseflies and soup!
But, after years of loving the land — like any self-respecting hippie — he returns to civilization. When he gets back, however, he discovers that the debt collectors have repossessed most of his shit but, on the plus side, he now understands why he needn’t ever deliver the death blow. He does return to the ring, though, only now he’s not such a fucking showoff and stops fighting his challengers one-handed, with the other holding an umbrella. He’s all about the compassion, folks. And now that’s he’s stopped knocking back the red wine, he gets deep into the Roadhouse mentality: 1) Never underestimate anyone or any situation; 2) take it outside; and, most importantly, 3) be nice.
The conclusion of Fearless, of course, is all about virtue, reminding us of the importance of honor and patriotism, using the requisite dissolves and close-ups we’ve come to expect from bad American films. Somehow, in fact, I suspect that if this weren’t an Asian martial arts film that no one would accord it with the kind of respect it will inevitably receive, despite all of its over-the-top Roland Emmerich flourishes — and really, why should we expect better from Ronny Yu, the director of Freddy vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky. I’d also add that, for those of you who do love this sort of thing for the brilliant, kinetic fight sequences, the ones that do exist are pretty stellar. Unfortunately, for all the technical achievements and the bone-crunching brawls in the beginning and end, the movie drags for around an hour while Huo “finds himself,” and all hostilities come to a woeful standstill in favor of a pap morality tale that all the so-called charm of Jet Li’s stoicism can’t enliven.
I’ll also reiterate for the record that my opinions of the martial arts genre are not necessarily reflective of the rest of Pajiba. [It must say something about them that Jeremy — who is probably our most cerebral critic (he wrote over 6,000 words on the first half of his De Palma piece, for God’s sake) — absolutely adores a good martial arts film]. But as with Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin, I can certainly appreciate the contributions of martial arts films to cinema without actually enjoying them, and I’ll grant their undeniable influence on films I actually do like. But kung-fu, tae-kwon-do, jujitsu, Kieichu Do, Mau rakau or whatever — it’s all just karate to me, man. And the second that Ralph Macchio hobbled off that mat and collected his trophy, my brief fling with it ended, which is why I imagine I’ll go back to reviewing shitty romantic comedies next week.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in Ithaca, NY. You may email him, or leave a comment below.I H♥te Martial Arts Films
Film | September 21, 2006 | Comments ()