You’ve all heard his name, even if you’ve never seen one of his movies, because along with Jackie Chan, Jet Li is one of the few Asian stars to have truly transcended his country of origin. While it’s true that such immense talents as Chow Yun Fat, Sammo Hung, Tony Jaa, Sonny Chiba and Donnie Yen have all made an impact, in one way or another, out west, if you spoke their names to your mother she wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, but she’ll have heard of Jet Li.
And it’s not without due reason. True, he is an A class action star and a trail blazer in his field, but further, in his earlier career, Jet Li was an ambassador for a more forward thinking China and the martial art of Wushu, which Li almost single handily popularised on a global scale.
As with any Asian star, his films are of vastly varying qualities, but the best of them are right up there with the very best of action cinema, and he is nothing if not prolific, sometimes starring in as many as five films in a year.
In his native China, Jet Li became an overnight sensation with his debut feature, Shaolin Temple, but it would be another ten years before he conquered first Hong Kong and then the rest of the world with his signature speedy and fluidic approach to action choreography. His style is hard to encapsulate in words, so I suggest you check out my five recommendations to fully comprehend what I’m gushing about.
Once Upon A Time In China: Charged with training China’s ‘Black Flag Malitia’, legendary folk hero, Wong Fei Hung, finds himself defender of a nation in the process of being torn apart by imperialists. With this burden on his shoulders, Wong then faces a serious dilemma, even if he units the people, are Chinese martial arts really any use against the foreign guns?
The character of Wong Fei Hung was an already well established staple of Hong Kong cinema when Li and director, Tsui Hark, decided to revitalise the franchise (think James Bond with about ten times as many films to his name.), but with this rich, lavish and smart take on the character, the pair managed to kick-start a trend in classical style martial arts films, reboot a franchise, create a new style of martial arts action, secure both their future careers and set the groundwork for what ten years later would become ‘martial art-house’ cinema (see Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for examples). The sequels are pretty cool too (up to number three).
The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk: Wily, young rascal, Fong Sai Yuk, self appointed champion of Canton, decides he’ll gain the hand of a rich merchant’s daughter in a martial arts contest, but with his mother’s interference the entire extended family become embroiled in The Red Lotus Flower Society’s scheme to overthrow the tyrannical Manchu Emperor.
As is the Hong Kong film industry’s want, after the massive success of Once Upon A Time In China a veritable slew of classic style martial arts films followed in its wake. Where Fong Sai Yuk differed from the majority of the po-faced crowd was with its sheer whimsy. It certainly is a very silly film in places, but all the more charming for it. In portraying yet another famous Chinese folk hero, Li got the chance to broaden his acting chops, with this character being the very definition of youthful vigour, a near opposite to the serious Wong Fei Hung, but worry not, the action is still outstanding.
Fist of Legend: On receiving news of his master’s death during a combat challenge, Chen Zhen returns home from his studies only to find that all is not as it seems. On his quest to discover the truth, Chen Zhen is put at odds with the invading Japanese army along with their greatest fighters.
A mash up of two martial arts classics (Fist Of Fury and Legend of A Fighter) Fist of Legend re-teamed Li with ace choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping. Perhaps drawing too many comparisons with the late Bruce Lee, the film was more highly regarded oversees than in its native land, proving a favourite of many influential filmmakers (just ask Taratino). From the back of this Woo Ping was hired to choreograph The Matrix, which in turn influenced a generation’s worth of action cinema, making Fist of Legend the granddad of martial arts action films as we currently know them.
Kiss of the Dragon: A Chinese agent is betrayed by the (corrupt) French policeman he has been sent to assist on a drug smuggling case. Framed for murder, the agent befriends a local prostitute and eventually sets to work clearing his name and rescuing the pro’s kidnapped daughter.
Not the first but certainly the best of Li’s western output, Kiss of the Dragon is just one of many Luc Besson produced action flicks, but separated from the pack with a hard edge to the action that is impeccably performed by Li at the top of his badass game. Statham, Neeson and Travolta may have followed Li into Besson’s crazy monopoly of mid-budget action, but none have outdone him.
Hero: A nameless soldier recounts to the warlord Qin his victories over three feared assassins. Suspecting treachery, Qin retorts with his own theories of the true nature of the battles, but whose version of events are the truth?
Remember those ‘martial art-house’ films I mentioned earlier? Well, that particular sub-genre reached its zenith with this masterful film. While Li’s performance is uniformly excellent, it is only one of many reasons for Hero being a contemporary action classic, most of which not relating to action at all. In short, Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, has crafted one of the most beautiful looking films of all time and populated it with astounding acting talent. It’s like watching a badass oil painting in motion.
I can’t see many Li fans doubting the majority of my selections, but be that the case or not, they’re all a ton of fun, so if you’re wanting to dip your toe in to the pool of the near sub-genre that is Jet Li martial arts flicks, give the titles a click and watch the trailers and I strongly suspect your collective appetites will be wetted.