Fearless (2005)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Jet Li, Yong Dong, Hee Ching Paw
Extras: Deleted Scene, Featurette

"Fearless" will reportedly be Jet Li's last period martial arts film. Under the direction of Ronny Yu, Li couldn't have picked a better movie as "fearless" is a mesmerizing film that makes its debut on HD-DVD now, making it the first Hong Kong movie to show up in high definition on the format. Reason enough for me to take a look.

"Fearless" tells the real life story of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) one of the most infamous martial artists in Chinese history. After growing up the son of a martial arts master, Huo follows his vocation and becomes a martial arts champion. Undefeated in countless challenges he is a living legend. After one fateful fight, in which he accidentally kills his opponent, Huo's world is forever changed by the revenge of the fallen fighter's relatives. He finds himself on a path to redemption in the country side until one day he feels he has to return to his roots and once again accepts the challenges of some of the most powerful fighters in the country.

Set before the backdrop of China in the early 1900s, a time when the country was extremely vulnerable to foreign exploitation, "Fearless" features some of the most remarkable martial arts sequences I have seen in years – being on par with classics only, such as "Wing Chun." As if he had to prove himself Jet Li throws himself into the part of Huo Yuanjia both in and outside the ring, making this his most memorable performance since "Once Upon A Time In China." Apart from the character and story itself, the range of martial arts in the film is what will strike fans of the genre as remarkable. Not limited to the same styles over and over again, here we have an incredibly potent mix of styles and techniques as Huo has to face different opponent and accommodate their fighting styles. While the focus of the film is on the martial arts fights, the film also offers up a depth of character that is touching and gives the film as a whole dimension. Ronny Yu once again knows how to perfectly balance action with subtle moments and humanity and puts Jet Li's boyish charm to best use throughout.

To tells its story, "Fearless" uses wonderful images and editing. It shows that the filmmakers had a clear vision when making this movie and Ronny Yu pulls it all together seemingly effortlessly that every moment is played out for maximum effect. The film is not as colorful and overtly dazzling as some of his more fantastic films and goes for a much more realistic look throughout, and does so flawlessly. Whether the camera is circling, slowly panning, zooming or static, Yu always finds the perfect angle and way to present each moment. Occasionally the images are so powerful that the camera alone invokes tremendous atmosphere and emotions while the actors stand virtually still. Once again, it is crystal clear here that Ronny Yu is one of the best director's the world has to offer these days.

Coming as a HD-DVD/DVD combo, "Fearless" contains the unrated version of the film on the HD-DVD side of the disc and the theatrical and unrated cut on the DVD side. Why the high definition side doesn't offer up the theatrical version is anyone's guess. As part of the unrated version I thought to even spot Michelle Yeoh's cameo in the background of one of the shots, whose scenes had entirely been removed from the theatrical version.

The transfer itself is wonderful and absolutely clean, bringing out all the details of the production design, making it marvelous to watch. In fact occasionally I found myself caught up in looking at textures and backgrounds as opposed to the action on the screen, seeing even minute dust in the settings, for example. With a strong color reproduction, the movie looks tremendously alive at all times and plays its muscles very well during the country side scenes where the lush greens bathe the screen in varying gradients and hues. Black levels are extremely balanced, rendering deep, solid shadows that firmly root the image. They also make the contrast possible that allow every bit of detail in the picture to retain its proper texture and dimensional look. It is clearly a transfer that has fascinated me and reminds you to properly appreciate all your high def home theater upgrades.

The disc properly defaults to the original Mandarin audio track with English subtitles turned on and also offers an English dub in 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus format, just like the Mandarin track. Surrounds are active constantly as the audio track makes aggressive use of the discrete channels to generate a sound field that is wide and incredibly spatial. The mix is balanced and very dynamic giving the film a flawless sonic presentation that is rich and solid. Dialogues are well integrated and always remain understandable. Sound effects are notable for their realism and the way they are used in the sound field to create depth throughout.

The release also includes and extensive deleted scenes. After viewing it I am glad that Ronny Yu decided to remove it from the actual film. While it is a very good scene – very good! – it would have clearly interfered with the story arch of the film itself and would have changed our point of view about Huo. It would truly have been detrimental to the film as a whole despite the superior quality of the scene itself.

"A Fearless Journey" is a production featurette with interviews by Ronny Yu, Jet Li and other crew members. It also focuses on the fact that after 25 years Jet Li has decided to make no more martial arts films. Running 15 minutes, it is a great featurette with a lot of soul that discusses many of the challenges and approaches to the movie.

I always find it a disappointment when really good movies get short-shrifted with extras while standard Hollywood dreck gets the royal 3-disc treatment. I feel the same way with "Fearless." While the deleted scene featurette are nice there is so much more that is not being covered by these features. Why is there no commentary track by Ronny Yu and/or Jet Li? Why is there no reference to the real-life story of Huo Yuanjia? What about a tribute to Jet Li's martial arts career and a look at these films? These and countless other aspects could have been covered in bonus materials but sadly Universal missed out on this opportunity.

Other than that, "Fearless" is one of the best martial arts movies of recent memory and comes as a solid high definition transfer here. Go, check it out. You will love it.