I've got a soft spot for Jet Li, but I think he's right to hang up his hat. I can't imagine today's audience having the patience for a slow build in an action movie. People would much prefer sixty minutes of non-stop action, happily leaving any non-essential back story on the cutting room floor. I lean towards today's approach (I'm usually too impatient for old Japanese samurai films), but I can appreciate a slow burner. Fearless dragged a little at times, but it wasn't for lack of effort—the film was apparently cut from an original runtime of 150 minutes down to 105. While cutting back was the right idea, it didn't work out as well as it could have. I ended up checking my watch every twenty minutes or so.
The film begins as Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li) must take on the four best fighters Europe has to offer. He easily offs the first three, including a mammoth brute with fantastic mutton chops, before we're sent back in time to Yuan Jia's childhood. We learn early that he is a cocky young man whose only desire is to humiliate every fighter in Tianjin. To the surprise of no one, things go sour and Yuan Jia is forced to learn humility and the true meaning of wushu (the fighting methodology he uses). Once he came to this realization, things got exciting again.
So why did I grow impatient during the meat of the film? I've seen it a hundred times before and I knew where every scene was going before it got there. When you begin a film with the end, you better have an amazing story to tell in the middle and I ended up waiting the last reel to arrive. I wouldn't have minded waiting, but director Ronny Yu spent too much time on Yuan Jia's young and cocky days when he should have emphasized his transition period. I'm okay with a slow film if it helps me relate to the protagonist's situation. Putting a little more information up front would have helped get the audience behind Yuan Jia from the beginning.
Despite my complaining, Jet Li doesn't disappoint when it comes to kicking ass. The fight scenes were tight and the choreography was simple, yet effective (there was very little CGI and wire work) and that's what people paid to see. While far from perfect, I'd take this over big-budget Hollywood films like Rush Hour 2 any day.