Aug 31, 2007

Movie Star's Biography: Jet Li

One of the most popular stars of Hong Kong films of the early 1990s, the compact, charismatic Jet Li was at one time considered the heir to the late Bruce Lee. A child prodigy in martial arts, he excelled in the high-kicking "wu shu" style, winning several national championships and traveling around the world (including a 1974 US visit to the Nixon White House). Before turning 20, Jet Li made his film debut as a fighting priest in "Shaolin Temple" (1982), which was banned in Taiwan but proved popular throughout Asia. After two sequels, "Shaolin Temple II: Kids From Shaolin" (1984) and "Shaolin Temple III: Martial Arts of Shaolin" (1986), both of which showcased his talents, Jet made his directorial debut with the unsuccessful "Born to Defend" (also 1986).

Since he had only been earning a limited salary, Jet Li obtained a two-year exit permit and settled in San Francisco with a Chinese actress who would briefly become his wife. "The Master" (filmed in San Francisco in 1989 but not released until 1992) was a minor modern-day kung fu thriller, more notable as the first time Jet Li worked with director Tsui Hark. Instead of returning to China in 1990, the actor settled in Hong Kong, where he attempted to rejuvenate his sagging career by signing with Golden Harvest. His breakthrough screen role came in 1990 when Tsui Hark cast him as real-life folk hero Wong Fei Hung in "Once Upon a Time in China". Despite critical carping over Jet Li's relative youth and his training in another martial arts discipline, the period piece offered the performer a strong role and he more than met the challenges exhibiting the requisite stoic aura. He went on to reprise the role in two sequels (in 1992), but an ankle injury forced the use of a double in several fight sequences. Nevertheless, Jet Li dominated the films in a role many felt he was born to play. The actor, however, felt financially under-appreciated and after a series of disputes parted company with Golden Harvest. (He was replaced by another actor for two sequels before resuming the franchise in 1997's "Once Upon a Time in China and America", which can be qualified as a kung fu Western.) Over a five year period (1992-97), Jet Li appeared in over two dozen films of varying quality. He scored as another martial artist folk hero "Fong Sai Yuk" (1993) and played his signature role of Wong Fei Hung in the uneven "The Last Hero in China" (also 1993), which he also produced. Additionally, he starred in the biopics "Tai Chi Master" (also 1993) and "New Legend of Shaolin" (1994), By the time of "Black Mask" (1996), an attempt to create a new franchise based on a popular Hong Kong comic book, his career was on the wane once again.

Despite numerous offers from bigwigs like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, Jet Li took his time following fellow HK actors Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Chow Yun-Fat to L.A. At one time he was attached to a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle and withdrew just before filming. At last, in 1998, after the Asian economy dropped and film production suffered, Jet Li appeared in his first American studio film, playing the seemingly unbeatable martial artist villain opposite Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the successful sequel "Lethal Weapon 4"—Li provided much of the heavy action lifting in the aging franchise, staying stone-faced while Gibson fired corny jokes at him (That same year the martial artist had another major Hong Kong hit, Wei Tung's "Sat sau ji wong" playing a reluctant rookie hit man opposite a seasoned veteran played by Eric Tsang).

Producer Joel Silver was sufficiently impressed with Jet Li's performance in his "Lethal Weapon" sequel that he signed the actor to headline his second major American film, envisioning the actor to have Jackie Chan-style crossover success—but replacing Chan's comedic bent with a romantic leading man edge. "Romeo Must Die" (2000)—directed by veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (who filmed Li in "Lethal Weapon 4") and choreographed by Li's longtime stunt coordinator Corey Yuen--attempted to meld a Shakespearean tragic romance to the high-kicking kung fu genre, pairing Jet Li with hip-artist Aaliyah as a star-crossed couple caught in the middle of a war between racially divided mobs in San Francisco. The film performed solidly at the box office, though critics, while praising the actor's physical prowess, decried the seemingly unnecessary use of computer-aided effects in the action sequences.

After arriving in Hollywood, Li spent much time expanding his English vocabulary and took a hiatus to marry and see his wife through her pregnancy, turning down Ang Lee's offer to star in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). Inspired by his vow to protect his wife and child, Li received story credit on his next film, "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001), in which he plays a Chinese intelligence officer in Paris who comes to the aid of a single mom (Bridget Fonda) turned into a junkie hooker by a corrupt cop who kidnapped her daughter—the film mixed elements of writer-director Luc Besson's cult hit "The Professional" (1994) with Li's Bruce Lee homage "Jing wu ying xiong" (1994) a.k.a. "Fist of Legend" (Besson wrote the screenplay for "Kiss," a rare U.S.-Asian-French collaboration).

Next was "The One" (2001) for writer-director James Wong, which added a sci-fi element to Li's established genre, a garbled but often visually arresting tale in which Li plays both the hero Gabe Law, a popular and peaceable veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and the villainous Gabriel Yulaw, his doppelganger from a parallel universe who by murdering his other-dimensional alter ego increases his strength, stamina and power to take over the multiverse.

The actor then segued into one of his greatest cinematic triumphs, "Ying xiong" (2002), which was released in the United States in 2004 under the title "Hero." Li teamed with celebrated writer-director Zhang Yimou—known more for character dramas than kicks and fisticuffs—Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle and Li's fellow Asian martial arts stars Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Daoming Chen and Donnie Yen for the big-budgeted tale set at the violent dawn of the Qin dynasty, circa 220 B.C., where the soon-to-be first Emperor is on the brink of conquering the war-torn land and three of his most passionate opponents (Cheung, Leung and Ziyi) are trying to assassinate him, opposed by the indomitable Li as Nameless, a lowly policeman who faces off against powerful forces. The film become a phenomenal hit in Asia and Europe, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 in the foreign language category before its North American release in 2004.

Along with the major international success, Li scored his largest Hollywood hit yet with "Cradle 2 the Grave" (2003), an action thriller that paired him with rapper actor DMX in a plot involving black diamonds and global annihilation--indeed, in the sleeper hit's opening weekend it solidly out-grossed the highly hyped Ben Affleck superhero film "Daredevil" (2003). Li next starred in the action thriller “Unleashed” (2005), playing Danny, a man trained since childhood to be a vicious fighter. Kept in a dank basement in rags and metal collar by his cruel Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins), Danny finally breaks his bonds and finds redemption through love. The combination of martial arts and blunt sentimentality earned plenty of critical kudos, particularly for Li.

* Also Credited As:
Jet Lee, Jet Li Lian-jie, Lei Lin Git, Li Lian Jie
* Born:
on 04/26/1963 in Beijing, China
* Job Titles:
Actor, Singer, Producer


* Daughter: Jada Li. born in 2002; mother, Nina Li
* Daughter: Jane Li. born in 2000; mother, Nina Li


* Beijing Athletic School, Beijing, China, martial arts, 1971


* 1971 Began to study wu shu, a form of martial arts, at age eight
* 1974 Represented China in wu shu demonstrations throughout the world; also won gold medals in 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1979
* 1974 Made first trip to the USA to perform in a wu shu troupe at the White House for President Richard Nixon
* 1974 Won first gold medal as champion of the youth national athletic competition
* 1982 Feature film debut in "Shaolin Temple"; also starred in two sequels in 1984 and 1986
* 1986 Directorial debut, "Born to Defend"; film was a box-office failure
* 1988 Obtained two-year exit visa from China; settled in San Francisco; married and divorced
* 1989 First feature filmed in the USA, "The Master", directed by Tsui Hark; film not widely released until 1992
* 1990 Moved to Hong Kong; signed to a contract by Golden Harvest
* 1991 Breakthrough role of Wong Fei-hung in "Once Upon a Time in China", directed by Tsui Hark
* 1994 Producing debut with "Bodyguard From Beijing"; also starred
* 1998 Cast in a villainous role in "Lethal Weapon 4"
* 2000 Signed to play Kato in the big screen version of "The Green Hornet" (still in development)
* 2000 Starred in "Romeo Must Die"
* 2001 Cast as a man chasing various incarnations of himself across several dimensions in the sci-fi martial arts thriller "The One"
* 2001 Had leading role in and co-produced "Kiss of the Dragon" co-produced and co-written by Luc Besson
* 2001 With Mel Gibson, executive produced the TBS movie "Invincible", a pilot for a proposed series to star Billy Zane
* 2003 Reunited with "Romeo Must Die" co-star DMX and director Andrzej Bartkowiak for "Cradle 2 the Grave"
* 2004 Teamed with Maggie Cheung in "Hero" (lensed 2001), directed by Zhang Yimou
* 2005 Played an orphan, raised by a crime boss (Bob Hoskins) to function like an attack hound in "Unleased," also starring Morgan Freeman and written by Luc Besson
* 2006 Returned to roots of kung fu in "Fearless" (final martial arts film)
* 2007 Played an assassin in "War" opposite Jason Statham

Jet Lie Photo Collection

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