Fighter Jet

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RICHARD CORLISSIn 1974, when Li Lian-jie first came to America, he was 11, and China and the U.S. had just begun an uneasy detente. As the star of the People's Republic's junior wushu team, young Li performed his martial artistry on the White House lawn for an audience including 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,' he recalled recently while sitting in a Beverly Hills restaurant. I said to the mirror, 'I like banana.' When I came back to the hotel the next day, I opened the door and I was scared: everything I'd said was on the table, as if I'd ordered it. 'It's true,' I thought. 'They are listening!'That was nearly a quarter century ago. In the intervening years, Li became the mainland's first martial-arts movie idol. He moved to Hong Kong, picked up the English moniker Jet Li and starred in a score of hits during the colony's Golden Age of action cinema. Then he gazed longingly across the Pacific, like so many other Hong Kong actors and directors--and like so many of the characters he played. Everyone wears dark glasses in America, he is told in the 1991 Once Upon a Time in China, because the gold the streets are paved with is so bright. In Once Upon a Time 3, he is taught to say Beautiful! in English. In last year's sixth installment of the series, he gets to America--and gets another English lesson. The only words he'll ever need, he is told, are Yeah? and Yeah!Now 35, Jet Li lives in Southern California, where, to the astonishment of Asian film aficionados, people make entire action pictures without anyone getting kicked. But after Li's smashing major-studio debut in Lethal Weapon 4, movie people are paying as much attention to him as the U.S. Secret Service did when he was a kid. And when directors are asked if he can make it in Hollywood, their answer is Yeah! He's delightful and disciplined, says Richard Donner, director of all four Lethal Weapon films. I knew I was getting a genius in martial arts, but I also got a really sensational young actor. He's extremely bright, and he has a delightful sense of humor. There's a good chance this guy will be around for a long time. I think he'll deliver.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
In the geriatric LW4, Jet Li delivers some much-needed vigor. Donner remains the clown prince of movie road rage, the all-time auteur of car wrecks and propane explosions. But the series has sequel-fatigue syndrome, and the American stars--Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo--are looking bored and bloated. Only the Jet Man looks as if he's on the sunrise side of stardom: smooth, sexy, ready to rumble. Old fans get to see him play a villain for the first time, while newcomers to the Jet Li saga have the pleasure of watching the world's most graceful action star conquer a new market.Playing a killer in the service of a triad boss who smuggles slaves into the country (Three dead Chinese? the boss says drily of the film's first victims. Billion more where they came from), Jet does most of the film's heavy lifting. He wins his first fight using just one hand; the other is fingering prayer beads. With his Buddha-beatific closed-mouth smile, he endures a lot of jokey cross-cultural insults from Gibson (Enter the drag queen and, alluding to Jet's suave tunic, Hey, Bruce, nice pajamas); then he kicks the poop out of Gibson and Glover in the final battle. Li takes punches from both men, gets a pylon skewered through his body, is pinned underwater, and still he fights. As Mel grudgingly grunts, This guy's too good!So good that LW4 earned $125 million in North America and is cleaning up in Asia and Europe. Jet Li has energized an aging movie franchise the way another Hong Kong star, Michelle Yeoh, did as James Bond's split-kickin' partner in Tomorrow Never Dies. Now Li's Hollywood career is moving with the speed of a No Shadow Kick. Oliver Stone, a longtime fan, wanted Li to star in The Art of War but lost out for the time being to Joel Silver, the industry's mayhem maestro and producer of the Lethal series. Silver's project is Romeo Must Die, which he calls a love story with a lot of great action beats and cool set pieces.That description--well, maybe not the love-story part--could apply to most of the Hong Kong movies Li made in a half-dozen bustling years, starting in 1990. On the mainland, he had created such a sensation as the teenage star of the Shaolin Temple films that thousands of admirers made pilgrimages to his home. But Hong Kong was the center of populist filmmaking--where the action movie was--and it already had a pair of top action stars: Jackie Chan for body-bending comedy, Chow Yun-fat for smoldering gangster drama.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
Beginning with the Tsui Hark blockbuster Once Upon a Time in China (1991), in which he played the legendary martial master Wong Fei-hung, Li showed there was a third way to stardom. Like Chan, he did most of his own stunts. But where Jackie's acrobatics are an expression of his natural exuberance, Jet is coiled, watchful; he implodes before he explodes. He is not the ingratiating Little Brother, but a distant cousin, solemn, alert and aggrieved. Chow often carried grievances too, but did so with a swagger. Jet was the spirit of restraint and dignity, a strong man who resorted to violence only as a fatal final resort. In Wong Jing's silly Kung Fu Cult Master, Li says a wise thing: In tai-chi, there is soft and hard. Use them both. The actor does that, brilliantly. His persona is one of grace and gravity. In blending these seeming irreconcilables, Li is tops in Hong Kong action.Even a stately star couldn't always impose decorum on a raucous movie tradition. In Swordsman II, produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-tung, Li is a loutish drunk who falls under the spell of half-man half-woman Brigitte Lin. In Corey Yuen's two madly entertaining Fong Sai-yuk movies, Li plays a teenager on his way to becoming a hero, so he's callow here--chipper and goofy, a mama's boy who is not above tarting himself up in a girl's wig and dress. He's in drag again in Ching's Dr. Wai in 'The Scripture With No Words,' where he plays a henpecked writer of Indiana Jones-style stories who daydreams himself into outlandish adventures: fighting with swords of flame, wrestling with the Giant Wolf-Rat.Wong Jing, for years Hong Kong's most successful and shameless producer-director, made four films with Li and attempted to turn him into a kung-fool: dressing him as a rooster (in Last Hero in China), casting him as the stunt double for a Jackie Chan-type actor who is really an alcoholic coward (in High Risk), forcing him into the lowest of low-comedy shtick. Bizarrely, Wong Jing would often kill off family members of Li's characters in the film's first reel: his parents in Kung Fu Cult Master, his wife in The New Legend of Shaolin, his wife and child in High Risk. (There is an especially ludicrous moment in High Risk: the child-killing villain is seen reading the Asian edition of TIME. Only good guys do that.) Li usually survived these assaults on his dignity. And yes, the Wong Jing movies do have vagrant scenes of whirling thrills--when the director lets Li and the stunt choreographer strut their handsome stuff.Li in repose is a cool star; Li in action is a hot one. It is a deep movie pleasure just to watch him scale a flight of stairs (in Yuen's The Bodyguard from Beijing) by vaulting over a railing, taking a long, lithe step up and then push himself over the top rail. His martial poses, with their wonderfully expressive names (the Rotation of the Stars, the Essence-Absorbing Stance, the ever-potent Wonder Screw), have classical beauty and power. His spin-kicks flout all laws of physics, if not metaphysics; there's nothing like Jet Li in a foot fight. His slippered feet (in Once Upon a Time in China 3) vs. four baddies with sabers: no contest! Four other miscreants (in Fong Sai-yuk II) rush at Li while he is holding a squirmy princess on a raft; he throws her high in the air, disarms the quartet and catches the girl before she falls. In The New Legend of Shaolin he fights off a dozen attackers with his infant son strapped to his back.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
A fact of life in early-'90s Hong Kong was the intrusion of the triads into the movie business. When these bad guys would take a gun to rob a bank and fight with policemen, maybe they'd get money or lose their life, Li says. But if they put a gun to an actor's head and told them to make a movie for half their regular salary, it was very easy to make money. Easy for them. Difficult for us. It also meant that in contemporary films, Li had to play with pistols. No surprise: he's good at gun-fu too. There's a mall scene in The Bodyguard from Beijing where Li fends off assassins' bullets while holding leading lady Christy Chung in an apache-dance pose; in this blood ballet he kills 14 bad guys, the last two while he's belly flopped with Chung on a runaway skateboard.Perhaps a man of the heroic past--the character Li so often plays--demeans himself by using firearms. This conflict, a metaphor for the collision of the mechanized West and the spiritual East, suits Li's noble, old-fashioned demeanor. It also plays into his ingenuity. We can't fight guns with kung fu, someone tells Wong Fei-hung in the first Once Upon a Time in China. But Fei-hung does, and wins: he kills the main occidental villain by flicking a bullet across the room into the baddie's forehead. Whack--he's dead!A Jet Li fight scene has many of the familiar delights of other Hong Kong action movies. The sound effects, for example, are always ferocious, hilarious: the castanet cracking of knuckles, the swirl of silk, the bass-drum thud of a kick, the typhoon-force hand chops; Li's pigtail, in the Wong Fei-hung films, has a whiplash whoosh. A viewer can enjoy the wire work that sends Li flying through the sky (in Wong Jing's Last Hero in China), or saving a woman's life (in Daniel Lee's Black Mask) with an amazing Wallenda catch off a bridge. It's lovely to see him paired with estimable actresses: Lin, Yeoh in The Tai Chi Master, Josephine Siao in the Fong Sai-yuk films, Rosamund Kwan in the Once Upon a Time series and Dr. Wai, the regal Cheung Man in Last Hero in China, Anita Mui in My Father Is a Hero. One can even savor the many maniacally giggling villains in Li's movies. They smirk and strut; he wins the big fight and gets the last laugh.Those fights are juicy, deranged, Jet-propelled; they display both his unique skills and his sweet disposition. Fong Sai-yuk, for example, boasts a six-minute contest between the young Sai-yuk and the kung-furious wife (Sibelle Hu) of a local warlord; the first one to set feet on the ground loses the fight. The combatants deftly clamber up scaffolding, run on the bald heads of the villagers. Sai-yuk is a fighter; he wants to win. But he is also a gentleman, so he contrives to keep Hu from being grounded. It's daredevil action comedy of the kind no other national cinema even tries to touch.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
Li can also be serious and modern, notably in Yuen's terrific 1995 My Father Is a Hero (from a story by Wong Jing, guaranteeing that our hero's wife will die halfway through the film). Huddled and shivering, pulling desperately on a cigarette, Li reminds us of Brando's Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront; and like Terry, he must dodge an onrushing vehicle in a narrow alley. The movie has the requisite enthralling fights, including a few where Li uses his movie son as a prop and a weapon. But some of the best moments are the quietest: Li's long-distance love for his son and his eloquent rage at his wife's death. Here he proves that his ultimate special effect is acting.Hong Kong is a tight little film community. As Li notes, We just pick up the phone, call the studios, say we want to make a movie, and it's 'Okay, good idea.' Two weeks later we're making a movie. In America, the circle is much bigger. We had to learn to talk to the agents, to the lawyers, to the studio people. And they all had opinions. So this is a new market for me, and I'm on the bottom. I want to get past that, work hard, shoot more movies.He will be helped by old colleagues and new. Tsui Hark, who launched Li to Hong Kong stardom, is directing Jean-Claude Van Damme films; and Yuen, who choreographed Li's Lethal Weapon stunts, is likely to be involved in Romeo Must Die. Mel Gibson loves Li's balletic high kicks; Joel Silver will keep working with him; Oliver Stone sits in the waiting room.Li also got some earthy praise from another Lethal co-star, the black comedian Chris Rock. Chris would tell me, 'Jet Li, you da bomb!' But I didn't know what he meant. Now he does. Bomb, not as in failure, but as in skyrocket or Chinese firecracker. Hollywood is paved with gold, and soon it could be Jet Li's.  |    |    |    |  5