Following closely on Jackie Chan's well-calloused heels as one of the most dazzling physical performers of the silver screen, Jet Li's lightning-fast moves, friendly sense of humor, and genuine concern for his fans have endeared him to a generation of international action-film lovers as one of the most respected figures in martial arts cinema.
The youngest of five siblings (consisting of two brother and two sisters) whose father died when he was only two years old, one might say that the painfully honest momma's boy has, since reaching adulthood, slightly overcompensated for his admittedly over-protected childhood (the future daredevil didn't even learn how to ride a bicycle until in his early teens). Sent during summer recess to what is now referred to as the Beijing Sports and Exercise school, Li was fatefully assigned to the wushu class and was one of a mere handful of students asked to return when the season ended and students filed back into classrooms in the fall. An exceptionally adept wushu student despite being only eight years of age, the experience boosted the confidence of the shy youth despite urges to join his classmates in after-school play. Leaving home for the first time the following year to attend competition, Li took first place at the event and was concurrently given the honor of performing at the opening ceremony of the eagerly anticipated Pan-Asian-African-Latin American Table Tennis Championships, an honor which also included the youth receiving personal praise from none other than Premier Zhou Enlai.
No longer required to attend conventional schooling, the young wonder was admitted to a rigorous sports school. Eventually remaining with a group that consisted of 20 of China's finest young wushu practitioners, the students were then put through another kind of training entirely -- this time of the Western etiquette persuasion -- for an extremely important goodwill tour of the United States. Despite a potentially embarrassing international incident in which the overly excited youngster expressed his excitement when he spotted what he thought was a Chinese airplane in Hawaii (the plane was actually Tawianese, an extremely sensitive and important distinction at the time) and travels with a heavily guarded entourage, the journey went fairly well and gave Li a newfound sense of independence. Winning the coveted All-China Youth Championships upon his return to China provided Li with his first national championship title, though it was only a prelude to a slew of awards to come including a bloodied performance at the qualifying round of China's National Games, during which Li accidentally cut his head with his saber (the determined youngster didn't even realize what had happened, assuming he was simply perspiring, until his form was nearly finished). Despite his serious injury, the 12-year-old Li went on to win first place in the National Games to the amazement of the enraptured crowd.
Competing frequently in the following years and surviving a close brush with death in a faulty cargo plane (the passengers were literally given pads of paper to write out their wills), Li was later appointed to an official welcoming committee for American presidents due to his previous contributions to positive Sino-American relations. Later attempting to live up to his title of "All-Around Wushu Champion of China," the 16-year-old who many referred to as all capable decided to do all he could to live up to the title by internalizing his understanding of the wushu practice through philosophy. Operating on the basic principle of Taiji (similar to yin/yang in the balance/counterbalance theory), Li began an internal voyage that would be just as rewarding as the physical labors he had so diligently pursued.
Breaking into the world of film with an exciting performance in 1979's Shaolin Temple, Li's screen presence was undeniable and ignited a boom in the kung-fu film industry during the 1980s. Though he took an unsuccessful attempt at directing a few short years later with Born to Defend (1986), his acting career continued to accelerate at high speed with such hits as the Once Upon a Time in China and the Fong Sai-Yuk series in the early '90s. Rising to remarkable celebrity status due to his charm and unmatchable moves, Li gained fans in both the young and old and continued to thrill Eastern moviegoers in increasingly awe-inspiring ways. A crossover to American films began with his role as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) (a role originally offered to Chan but turned down due to his inclination never to play the bad guy), and continued with more likable roles in Romeo Must Die and Kiss of the Dragon (2000 and 2001 respectively). Li caused something of a sensation with the release of Kiss of the Dragon when he made a special plea to parents not to bring their children to the film due to the unusually (for Li) adult-oriented violence of the film. A request virtually unheard of in the Hollywood system, Li promised parents that they would soon be able to share his high-kicking escapades with their children with the decidedly more family friendly The One a few short months later. In 2003 Li would return to stateside screens alongside DMX in Cradle to the Grave (2003), a remake of the classic Fritz Lang film M (1931) which fared only moderatly well at the box office.
Just as it began to seem as if Li had forsaken the period martial arts genre on which he was weaned in favor of mainstream Hollywood success, his memorable return to the format with director Zhang Yimou's richly textured 2002 effort Hero proved to fans that he still possessed all the talent and charm he had so skillfully displayed in the previous Hong Kong hits produced before his crossover success. Despite the fact that the film drew some of the best reviews of Li's later career, however, the inexplicable decision made by U.S. distributor Miramax to sit on Hero for nearly two years before unceremoniously dumping it into stateside theaters in August of 2004 eventually caused many fans to seek out foreign releases of the critically-praised effort well before it's official U.S. release; a mournful mistake that likely resulted in diminshed sales at stateside multiplexes. A second collaboration with Kiss of the Dragon collaborator Luc Besson resulted in Unleashed, an effort many fans considered to be a notable improvement over his previous U.S. efforts, and in 2006 Li would return to the genre that launched his career one last time with the throwback martial arts biopic Fearless. A traditional-minded kung-fu epic that eschewed wirework and digital effects to focus on character and the art of fighting, Fearless proved an enormous success when it out-grossed such recent hits as House of Flying Daggars, Hero, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon upon being released into East Asian theaters in January of 2006. He made The Warlords and The Forbidden Kingdom, and had one of this most high-profile successes in the United States being part of the superstar ensemble in The Expendables, signing on for that movie's sequel two years later as well. In between those two films he could be seen in Flying Swords of the Dragon Gate and Emperor and the White Snake. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi