No Cooling This Jet

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Hong Kong action hero Jet Li gets a hip-hop- fueled shot at big-screen stardom in the U.S.


In 1974, when Li Lian-jie first went to America, he was 11. As the star of the junior wushu team of the People's Republic of China, Li performed his martial artistry on the White House lawn for an audience that included Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The boy's suspicious superiors back home had told him to beware of wiretaps, so in a hotel room he made a test. I spoke to the flowers in Chinese: 'I like chocolate ice cream.' I said to the mirror, 'I like banana.' When I came back to the hotel, I opened the door, and everything I'd mentioned was on the table as if I'd ordered it. 'It's true,' I thought. 'They are listening!'

Now Li, who acquired the anglicized moniker Jet Li when he moved from the mainland to star in a score of Hong Kong hits during the territory's Golden Age of action cinema, is 36. And Hollywood is paying as much attention to him as the U.S. Secret Service did when he was a kid. He's delightful and disciplined, says Richard Donner, who directed Li in his 1998 Hollywood film debut, Lethal Weapon 4. I knew I was getting a genius in martial arts, but I also got a really sensational young actor.

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History Comes Tumbling Down Li has his first big Hollywood role in Romeo Must Die, director Andrzej Bart-kowiak's star-crossed-killers melodrama that earned a robust $4.1 million on opening day. Soon he may play Kato (Bruce Lee's role on '60s TV) in a big-screen update of The Green Hornet or a role in the sequel to The Matrix. It's all part of Li's strategy: First you open the door so people know who Jet Li is. Next you prove yourself and make some money for the studio. Then you'll have the chance to do something you really want to do.

With Romeo, producer Joel Silver has bet that Li, like Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, can click with urban moviegoers if he is paired with black actors and backed by an assaultive hip-hop score. As Han, scion of a Chinese family at war with a black clan in San Francisco, Li must juggle ethnic rivalries and ethical responsibilities--in other words, kick everybody's ass, without regard to race or kinship. Han's only ally is the black kingmaker's daughter Trish O'Day (R. and B. thrush Aaliyah), in a romance so tepid it is consummated with a hug. But our hero is at his combative best on his own. You have to see this Han solo.

In action scenes designed by Hong Kong master Corey Yuen (who worked with Li in seven previous films), the star shows the world audience some of the moves that brought him to Hollywood. He hangs by one foot from a rope in a Hong Kong prison cell, and presto, four guards are zapped into electric skeletons. He twirls a water hose to subdue some villains, spins in the air to kick five guys at once, strips the belt off one oaf and hog-ties him with it and goes spectacularly hand-to-hand with Asian-American lookers Russell Wong and Fran�oise Yip. In the battle with Yip, Li uses Aaliyah as a human nunchaku. I rehearsed for that scene with Corey for a month, Aaliyah says, but Jet and I didn't hook up until the day we shot. That's how dope he is; he doesn't even have to rehearse. He just comes to the set and fights.

If Li makes it in the U.S., it will be the third movie industry he has conquered. On the mainland, he created such a sensation as the teenage star of the Shaolin Temple films that thousands of admirers made pilgrimages to his home. In Hong Kong, starting with the hit series Once Upon a Time in China, Li proved himself a compelling opposite to Jackie Chan. His persona mixes gravity with grace; he is both morally grounded and Jet propelled.

Li in repose is a cool star; Li in action is a hot one. In The New Legend of Shaolin, he fights off a dozen attackers with an infant son strapped to his back. His martial poses have classic beauty and power. His spin-kicks flout all laws of physics; there's nothing like Jet Li in a foot fight. His best Hong Kong movies (like Fong Sai-yuk and My Father Is a Hero) offer buoyant, daredevil action comedy of the kind no other national cinema even tries to touch.

Romeo doesn't touch it either. But it attempts something clever. In a movie loaded with African-American vibes, it wants to make Jet Li the first Asian black star. Maybe it'll work. At an early screening of the film, some black teenagers watched Li total his opponents in the football scrimmage scene. As he nimbled over the goal line, a girl shouted a rude compliment: That nigger's hot! Jet Li, welcome to the brotherhood.

Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles