Jet Li: Episode 50
Today’s episode is all about one of our favorite martial arts actors, Jet Li. We jump headfirst into his history with the martial arts and his impact on the martial arts movie world. If you’re at all a fan of him or his movies, you won’t want to miss this episode. We referenced a number of resources for this episode, including his Wikipedia page.
Forbidden Kingdom fight scene between Jet Li and Jackie Chan
Hero fight scene between Jet Li and Donnie Yen
Fight scene from Fist of Legend
Jet Li and Donnie Yen again, from Once Upon a Time in China 2
Hey, there, everyone it’s episode 50 of whistlekick Martial Arts Radio, the only place to hear the best stories about the best martial artists, like today’s subject, Jet Li.
I’m the founder here at whistlekick, but I’m better known as your host, Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, in case you don’t know, makes the world’s best sparring gear and some great apparel and accessories, all for traditional martial artists. I’d like to welcome our new listeners and thank all of you returning fans.
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But now let’s talk about today’s subject, Jet Li.
Fans of this show know that there are a few consistent answers when we ask our guests about their favorite martial arts actors. Jet Li is certainly one of those common responses. Anyone that has seen his movies knows that Jet Li brings a unique element to the films, lending a great deal of martial arts to the fight scenes. Whereas Jackie Chan is beloved for the humor and creativity in his fight scenes, Jet Li is beloved for the skill he displays in everything he does.
Born Li Lian Jie in Beijing 1963, Jet Li started training at the Beijing wushu academy at age 8. In fact, he wasn’t there by choice. It was during a mandatory summer wushu class that he was discovered. Out of over 1000 kids only 20 were selected to continue their training. Of those 20, Li was the youngest.
By 11 he had won 5 national level gold medals and started competing in the adult division at 12. When he retired in his late teens he had 16 medals to his name, 15 of them gold. The 16th was silver, in case you’re wondering. As you might expect from his success as an actor, he didn’t participate in sparring events, but rather in forms.
His martial arts training focused on Northern Shaolin styles, and he spent a great deal of time training in a number of them. His training time included a lot of experience with traditional wushu weapons like the three section staff and straight sword. You can see his comfort with weapons really come through in his movies.
He starred in his first movie in 1979 – Shao Lin Tzu which translates as Shaolin Temple. Experts claim this was the movie that kicked off the 80s kung fu boom in China. He moved to Hong Kong and became the biggest star of these films through the 90s.
It was from his movie roles that he got his screen name. A publicity company in the Philippines thought his name was too hard to say, so they decided to print Jet Li on the posters. It stuck.
He directed his only film in 1986, Born to Defend, which you can find on DVD for as little as $3.99 or watch it on Netflix. I’ve never seen it, but the acting has the reputation of being rather poor. In true kung fu movie style, though, the action saves it with several excellent fight scenes. Or so people say.
His first Hollywood role was in Lethal Weapon 4, which was the most commercially successful of his films. His first starring role was in Romeo Must Die. It was Fist of Legend that received the most critical acclaim, released in 1994. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a remake of Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fist of Fury. In 2010 Donnie Yen played Jet Li’s character from Fist of Legend for a remake titled Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. While the original isn’t available for streaming, the sequel is on Netflix and has been reviewed well. I haven’t seen it, but it’s on my short list.
He was originally slated to play Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but didn’t accept because he had promised his wife he wouldn’t work while she was pregnant. Imagine what that film would have been like with Jet Li in the leading male role? Not that Yun-Fat Chow wasn’t phenomenal in the role.
He was also offered the role of Seraph in the 2nd and 3rd Matrix movies. Seraph, in case you don’t remember, played guard to the Oracle.
One of my favorite Jet Li movies is The Forbidden Kingdom, mostly because the movie had Jet Li and Jackie Chan. I remember the suspense I felt the entire movie, waiting for them to fight.
When the film Hero came out in 2002 it was the highest grossing Chinese film of all time. It received critical success. Far lesser known at the time, Donnie Yen also has a role in this one. It might be worth going back to watch it again knowing what he’s capable of now.
He’s scheduled to be in the new XXX movie, The Return of Xander Cage, which stars Vin Diesel coming back to play the role he had in the first movie.
According to Li, and I’m not quoting here, all the advice he would ever offer can be found in three of his films. In hero, he teaches that the suffering of a single person is always outweighed by the suffering of a nation. Unleashed teaches that violence is never the answer and Fearless shows that everyone’s greatest enemy is themselves.
If you’ve listened to our episode on the spiritual side of martial arts, episode 45, you’ve heard my thoughts on the subject. Jet Li has some similar views and is actually very critical of modern wushu. He feels that competition and precision have been so over emphasized as to remove a great deal of the individuality and art from performing wushu forms.
There are a lot of Jet Li movies available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon. I’d strongly urge you to check out some of the ones you may not have seen, and maybe revisit a few that you have. I know I will be.
So, head on over to whistlekickmartialartsradio.com for the show notes, with links to many of the movies we talked about today. We’ve also included some of our favorite Jet Li fight scenes and photos.
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