Fearless is the best movie you've never seen.
I’ve broken down in a movie theater only twice in my life. Oh, I’ve teared up plenty – felt my eyes get wet and whatnot. But sobbed? Only twice. One of those times was near the end of Philadelphia when Denzel Washington adjusts dying Tom Hanks’ oxygen mask. (I don’t think Philadelphia is that great a movie on the whole, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t get me there.)
The other time was at the end of Peter Weir’s Fearless. But the tears that came weren’t like the tears I cried in Philadelphia, where I was all-too conscious I was being manipulated a bit. In Fearless, it was something altogether different. I was just overcome, with nowhere to hide, with no way to compose myself in the power of its final moments.
I’ve never had another experience like that with cinema in my life. But the hell of it is trying to explain “the why” of it being so powerful. It’s not even all that easy to explain the movie.
Sure, you could say the movie is about a guy who survives a plane crash and finds himself completely changed. While he can be in the world, he can’t truly be of it. Not anymore. He’s no longer able to lie – not even in the little human ways we do every day, to get from one minute of our lives to the next. He finds himself incapable of relating normally to anyone who hasn’t had the same near-death experience he had. Everything must be completely authentic.
How can you know life if you haven’t been on the precipice of death?
There are two truly extraordinary scenes in the film. In one of them he shows fellow survivor Rosie Perez there was no way she could have hung onto her baby when the plane crashed. He does this by giving her a tool box to hold while he rams his car into a wall as the intro to “Where The Streets Have No Name” by U2 plays over the scene.
It left me in awe.
It seemed a moment like that would be impossible to top. Yet there I was at the end, watching Jeff Bridges eat a strawberry, go into anaphylactic shock, and once again find himself on that same edge with a decision to make. I was left staggered in my seat, as if my bones had melted, my heart was pounding through my chest, and only the breath of life sustaining my existence. As I said, I was overcome.
Fearless was well reviewed when it came out in 1993. It even scored an Oscar nomination for Perez as best supporting actress. It made next to no money though. Since then, it’s faded from view. So much so that when I’m asked to name my favorite movies – and this one is always on my shortlist – and I say Fearless, I often get a cock-eyed look, followed by “The Jet-Li movie? Really?”
No! Not the god damn Jet-Li movie for chrissakes! The movie that contains the career best work of Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. The movie with the finest two hours and two minutes of direction by the truly great Peter Weir. The movie that has space for John Turturro, Tom Hulce, Isabella Rossellini, and a young Benicio Del Toro. The movie so profound it would make Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick gasp in unison.
The movie that broke me in two.
I realize all these words have done little to explain the film. Discussing plot points, what happened when, and all that are meaningless. You simply must experience it.
When I correct people from the mistaken belief that a film from the Jet-Li oeuvre is one of my favorites, they often next ask “What is it about?”
I have finally come up with a stock answer to that question.
Originally published at awardsdaily.com