I keep waiting for some of my stunt friends to get together and make a Wah Sing Ku fan flick based on the deadly triad enforcer played phenomenally by action star Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4. It’s certainly one of the best villain characters I’ve ever seen alongside Yayan Ruhian’s Mad Dog from The Raid in recent memory and I dare say Whang In-sik’s leadfooted martial arts antagonist in Jackie Chan’s The Young Master, and I think it would be a great fan ode to preserve the fanfare, especially considering Li has long since been retired from the game due to his hyperthyroidism diagnosis in 2010.
Indeed, Li’s newfound fame upon arriving via the fourth installment of the Warner Bros. Pictures blockbuster franchise in the wake of the reception of colleagues Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh and Jackie Chan, also brought about some memorable performances in his mainstream career with Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Louis Leterrier’s Unleashed and Chris Nahon’s Kiss Of The Dragon, which I believe to be Li’s best international action movie to date. Paired with the circulation of redubbed VHS and DVD releases like Fist Of Legend, The Enforcer (a.k.a. My Father Is A Hero), The Defender (a.k.a. Bodyguard From Beijing) and Meltdown (a.k.a. High Risk), and any Li fan in the wake of Lethal Weapon 4 was in for some great homework.
Of course, this kind of consumption couldn’t be done without obligatory viewings of the Once Upon A Time In China saga, of which I’ve only seen the first three. Learning even Li himself needed stunt doubles on these films at times were pretty interesting surprises considering the Western mentality that all these Hong Kong superstara stars were like Jackie Chan and did their own stunts; It helps to take a gander at a few documentaries on Hong Kong cinema in the last sixty years for the nitty gritty details.
Forty years since his debut with the breakout mainland production of Shaolin Temple, Li stands tall to this day among fans who continue to carry on the ceremony of his work. You’ll even find scores of fans on Twitter musing about James Wong’s The One (2001) in which Li takes on dual roles in a story that exposes a cop to the cross-dimensional hunt for a ruthless killer traveling between multiverses to become a super-being by killing alternate versions of themselves; To that end, I’m inclined to say that Phillip Atwell’s 2007 Li starrer, War, wasn’t as terrible as some fans frenzied. It was a particularly different kind of film that still held up as a cinematic affair drawing the Li’s shared fandom with the Jason Statham crowd.
Additionally, pan over to Hi-YAH! and you’ll also find their latest classic re-release of Stephen Tung’s Hitman which joins Li with Simon Yam, Eric Tsang and Gigi Leung, while Li can also be seen in a speaking role in Niki Caro’s Disney production, Mulan, which is now on Disney+. Also, if you live in the mainland then you were likely fortunate to catch Shaolin Temple in 4K for its recent re-release.
While Li’s career as a formidable action star has taken a formal back seat for the preservation of his health, the ceremony of his starpower remains a key focal point for many a fan going forward. His physical screen prowess has brought about many a fan favorite fight scene, particularly the kind that’s ultimately led to the memorable square off he had with the aforementioned Chan in 2007’s The Forbidden Kingdom where the two star as legendary folkloric characters battling for The Monkey King’s staff, with Li also in a dual role as the man of royalty himself. That his career and legacy eventually led to being memorably cast in Sylvester Stallone’s A-list franchise action extravangaza, The Expendables, I think makes for a worthwhile service to Li’s otherwise somber farewell in the last ten years.
And of course, it probably doesn’t mean he’s done acting. He’s done terrific for himself in some roles, a fact easily overlooked by some fans who would rather see him go hard as Black Mask again. I get it, but I’d rather see the man well rested and healthy. He’s earned every bit of it. And as soon as Chan is done delaying his retirement for one more action thriller, it’ll be great just seeing these two cats retired and living their best lives.
For now, I think a proper Jet Li birthday viewing is in order, and so I’m curious to see what you guys will be watching in honor of Li’s 58th birthday. Any marathons in order? @ me on Twitter!
Lead pic: The Criterion Collection