The Promise, Jet Li's Fearless



Release date: Dec. 19, 2006 (both)

The Chinese have finally obtained "Lord of the Rings" technology, and the results are glorious. "The Promise," a Warner Home Video release (retail $28.98), is a gorgeous fantasy spectacle combining the elaborate wirework and succulent production designs that have always been a hallmark of great Chinese features with computer-animated embellishments that eliminate any and all constraints to the imaginations of the filmmakers. Because of the fantasy elements, some of the effect sequences do not try for total realism, but in the environment the 2005 film establishes, such moments are easy to accept, and there are other scenes more grounded in reality, where the additions of effects are stunning. And the story makes the effort well worthwhile. A princess believes she has been rescued by a general, when in fact it is the general's slave, in disguise, who saves her. She falls in love with the general, both men fall in love with her, and the villain, who was threatening her in the first place, still wants his way with her, too. There are big battles, dizzying fight sequences, amazing chases and supernatural adventures. The possibility that this is just the beginning of where Asian movies are headed is mind-boggling. Hiroyuki Sanada, Liu Ye, Jang Dong Gun and Cecilia Cheung star in the feature, which was directed by Chen Kaige.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer delivers the film's beauty without a blemish. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a full dimensionality and viable separations. There is both a Mandarin track and an English track, but however earnest the English track is, the Mandarin just seems to fit the film better. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, 23 minutes of deleted scenes that show how well sculpted the narrative was, and 40 minutes of excellent behind-the-scenes footage that show Kaige dictating movements and expressions to the cast.

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Supposedly his swan song, "Jet Li's Fearless" has been released as an Unrated Edition by Universal (retail $29.98). In point of fact, the DVD contains both the American theatrical version and the unrated version, each of which runs 103 minutes, the unrated version adding 30 seconds of crunched bones. Directed by Ronnie Yu, the 2006 feature tells a common martial arts story with a fair amount of elegance. Set in the early 1900s (and based upon true events), a young, skilled fighter is too filled with hubris and his actions cause a tragedy, so he retreats from his life, goes on a journey and discovers the value of simple things, eventually returning to greater glory. It's "Sullivan's Travels" in martial arts. With the bone crunching restored, the fight scenes are exhilarating, favoring realism but not entirely dispensing with the joys of improbability, and the parts about the hero learning humility and how to plant rice have the relaxing, meditative appeal they are intended to convey. The film is done well enough to survive having been done before.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is sharp and spotless. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has an appealing dimensional flourish and plenty of punch. The film is presented in Mandarin with optional English (and French) subtitles, but there is also a 5.1 track dubbed in English that isn't bad. During the film's midsection, you expect to see a certain type of scene than never appears, and sure enough, it's on the DVD as a 7-minute deleted sequence, which is precisely where it belongs. There is also a passable 16-minute production featurette in which Li talks about getting out of the martial arts rat race, as other elements of the film's creation are also explored.

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