I’m going to let you in on a little secret. When the press packets for Lethal Weapon 4 come out they will be complete, except for one (in my opinion) glaring omission. Oh sure, there will be up-to-the-second updates on the state of star Mel Gibson’s hair, ass and salary (a reported forty million dollars). Costar Danny Glover will obviously be rewarded for his work in the series with a glossy booklet highlighting his illustrious career. Chris Rock will get a lions’ share of publicity because he’s, well, Chris Rock and the studio that he tapes his HBO series at is quickly becoming a Manhattan landmark. No, everything dealing with those well-known performers will be kosher. The problem will lie with the man who is going to play the villain in the film. Nowhere in all the copy that introduces this Asian superstar will be the one phrase that I feel is the key to understanding his appeal. What are these magic words? Would I set you up like that and not pay out? No, I am far too kind and gentle. Here goes…
"JET LI IS THE FUCKING MACK."
Yep, July 10th, Lethal Weapon 4 will hit theaters and Martial Arts superstar Jet Li will be playing a villain for the first time in his career. My bet is that he’ll be playing some sort of ruthless, drug-dealing, Triad gangster who’s out to kill Riggs (Gibson’s character) and flood the streets of America with (what else?) "China White." How this turn will suit the Beijing born Li, a man used to playing the most heroic characters Hong Kong Cinema has to offer, is anyone’s guess. Another uncertainty is how Li’s fans (myself included) will react to seeing their hero killed (presumably) by Riggs. I, hope and pray that it will not be in hand- to- hand combat, seeing rickety- old Mel Gibson beat my Mainland main man in a fight would be disappointing, as well as unbelievable (c’mon, I’d whup Mel Gibson.) Those musings aside, the prospect of seeing Jet Li flash across the screen in a big- budget Hollywood action picture fills my wee heart with indescribable glee. This event instantly makes my life easier; instead of explaining who Jet Li is every time I list off my favorite performers, I can now just say, "The bad guy from LW4." Huzzaaah.
It is in honor of this momentous occasion, then, that I humbly offer; The Jet Li Primer.
There are really only a couple of things you need to know about Jet Li. The first is, he’s not Jackie Chan. Jackie’s frenetic, bouncing- around- the- building style is nowhere to be found in Jet’s movies. Instead, what you usually get is the incredibly graceful Li flowing through a crowd, dispatching his enemies with a completely fluid style and apparent ease. That aside, the important thing to remember is that, unlike many of Jackie’s movies(and the stereotypical perception of martial arts movies in general) Jet Li’s films are usually quality films. Top- notch cinematography, well- conceived scripts and fine performances are commonplace in movies starring the Wu Shu champion. With this in mind, I will give you a quick list of my favorite Jet Li films…
Fist of Legend
This remake of Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection is a four- star fightfest. It’s Japan vs. China as Jet kicks everyone’s ass. My personal favorite.
Fong Sai Yuk
Everybody else’s favorite Jet Li movie. The amazing Josephine Siao plays Jet’s mom in this one and completely steals the show. Jet kicks butt too.
Tai Chi Master
Jet Li, Chin Siu-Ho and Bond girl Michelle Yeoh in a movie together? Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping? Can’t miss? Doesn’t… Good wire fu movie about the legendary founder of Tai Chi Chuan.
Bodyguard from Beijing
The last twenty minutes of this movie make the slow first hour worth it. Amazing sequence…
My Father is a Hero
Excellent modern cop thriller starring Jet, Anita Mui (the woman who buys the grocery store in Rumble) and the cutest little ass- kicker you’ll ever see, Tze Mui. Yu Rong-Guang (The Iron Monkey in Iron Monkey) shows up as the over- the- top villain.
The Black Mask
Stylish direction from Daniel Lee and solid performances from Anthony Wong andLau Ching-Wan put this one pretty high on my list. Based on a HK comic book.
Once Upon a Time in China I and II
The two best films from a very important series in the genre. The original was a trend setter and the sequel features Boston’s own Donnie Yen (son of famed Wu Shu and Tai Chi expert Bow Sim Mark.) in a dream matchup with Li.
Ching Siu-Tung’s lush costume piece isn’t really a "Jet Li" movie. It’s more of a film in which Jet just happens to star., which is fine because he turns in what may be his best performance. But, like I said it really isn’t his movie. Bridgett Lin’s performance as "Asia the Invincible" is the stuff of legend.
Jet’s first movie. See an 18 year old Jet star in this Mainland production. If you like the graceful forms of Wu Shu then this is the movie for you. If you want to see "real" kung fu (whatever that is in a movie) then shop elsewhere.
This article first appeared in Shovel Magazine #3, March/April 1998.