Post Bruce Lee, every generation has their Kung Fu guy. The late 70s and early 80s had Gordon Liu, the late 80s and early 90s had Jackie Chan, the late 2000s had Tony Jaa, and these days we have Donnie Yen and Iko Uwais but the martial arts star of my generation was the one, the only, Jet Li. Li, who was born Li Lianjie in 1963, rose out of poverty when at a young age people noticed his martial arts aptitude and placed him on the Chinese National Wushu Team. He then starred in a string of Chinese and Hong Kong films during the 80s and early 90s before coming to Hollywood in the late 90s right after the success of Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour” films showed the studios that there was clear profit to be made from importing Asian action stars to act in American films. The films that followed were… products of their time. The 2000s were an incredibly stupid era of American action movies, the titans of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era were still around but were clearly in decline but the CGI driven Disney tentpoles hadn’t really arrived yet and there was sort of a power vacuum that needed to be filled and Hollywood was trying to develop a new generation of action stars like Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, and were trying to make them look really cool to these young millennials that were just aging into consumer age. As evidenced by the profitability of the later Fast and Furious sequels this investment would eventually pay off but at the time it seemed pretty lame compared to what had come before and some of these movies’ attempts at connecting with the youths of America seemed pretty clueless.
That’s the environment that Li arrived to and needed to find a way to fit into and damned if he didn’t try. These movies were never what you’d call ubiquitous. None of the movies that Li had first billing on made more than $100 million dollars domestically and I’m not even entirely sure he would have been a “household name” at least outside of the younger generation, but there was a solid decade there where he was part of the landscape of American cinema and I kind of missed it. When Li was first becoming a Hollywood star I was a bit too young to see his mostly R-rated movies and by the time I was old enough for his stuff I was also old enough to know that his Chinese stuff was better so I mostly stuck to that. I did see his PG-13 rated 2001 effort The One, which I liked enough at the time but assume doesn’t hold up and I’ve also seen a handful of his Chinese movies like Fists of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China, and of course Hero but as far has his English stuff my exposure has been limited. So, for my next crash course I’m going to take a look at eight English language movies that Li made between 1998 and 2008 with a goal of examining how the Hollywood of the early 2000s would try to present this Asian superstar to young millennial audiences. It’s an examination that may teach me something about how Hollywood tries to mold itself to talent… or at least give me some dumb early 2000s action movie tropes to laugh at.
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
It probably shouldn’t be understated how instrumental the financial success of the movie Rush Hour was in Hollywood’s interest in bringing Jet Li to the American screen. That movie succeeded in helping Chan to break into Hollywood filmmaking not by Americanizing his usual style of Kung Fu cinema but by taking a familiar Hollywood action genre (the buddy cop film) and then adding Jackie Chan to the equation. But even before that success the newest Lethal Weapon film was already scheming to add a kung fu guy to their series.
I actually distinctly remember when Lethal Weapon was in theaters for whatever reason. I saw the trailer or something and it intrigued me even though I was ten and didn’t know a damn thing about the series. It wasn’t until much later that I finally started exploring the Lethal Weapon series but I never got around to watching the fourth entry, probably because I found the third movie rather underwhelming. I don’t think I was alone in feeling that way about the third film, it was a critical failure and I think most of the creative team was happy to leave things as a trilogy as they ended up waiting six long years to make the fourth film, which might not sound like an outrageous wait but it only took them two years to make the second film and three years to make the third. And quite a lot happened in the six years between 1992 and 1998. The Lethal Weapon movies had a bit more “attitude” than a lot of the action movies of the 80s but they ultimately were a product of that decade and by 1998 action movies were finally starting to move on. Stallone’s career had fallen apart, Schwarzenegger’s decline wasn’t far off, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal both put out the first of many direct-to-video movies they’d go on to make. But Mel Gibson, who was only ever a part time action star, was still very much in the prime of his career and the Lethal Weapon franchise still had some juice in it and despite the long wait overall, Lethal Weapon 4 was actually by all accounts a rush job. Warner Brothers had done really poorly in 1997 and they needed a safe hit for the next summer so they had Richard Donner work overtime to deliver it.
The final movie does not have a great reputation but after finally seeing it I don’t think its half bad. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover still have that signature chemistry and some of the action sequences are pretty strong. I found the opening scene with the flamethrower guy amusing, the car chase where they drive through the building is reasonably impressive, and the film’s finale mostly works as well. What works a bit less is the supporting cast, which had gotten rather bloated by the fourth film. Joe Pesci probably shouldn’t be in this movie, his character had a purpose when he was introduced in the second film and he probably should just been written out of the series after that and he’s completely superfluous here. Rene Russo also basically has nothing to do other than be pregnant with the Mel Gibson character’s baby and some of the Danny Glover character’s family travails also probably could have been kept to a minimum. Then of course we have Jet Li as the villain, which is sort of the main thing I came to the movie for here and he’s really not utilized very well. His character seldom speaks and just kind of spends the whole movie looking menacing in one of those black kung fu outfits. What’s worse, the film doesn’t really showcase a ton of martial arts from him as he kind of doesn’t have anyone to fight except for a forty two year old Mel Gibson, who he eventually has to lose to. He’s generally miscast in the movie. Li was always more serious than Jackie Chan but I wouldn’t really call him a “menacing” presence and I’m not sure playing a villain suits him. He’s certainly better than… whoever the hell was the villain in Lethal Weapon 3 (who was literally forgettable) but compared to Gary Busey in the first film and the African diplomats in Lethal Weapon 2 he’s not great.
Despite all that the movie does work more than it doesn’t and this was kind of a reminder for me how much this franchise worked in the first place and this wasn’t nearly the decline I expected from it. In fact I’m kind of surprised they never managed to make a fifth movie sometime in the early 2000s and feel like we missed out on something because they didn’t.
*** out of Five
Romeo Must Die (2000)
One of the things that distinguishes 2000s action from 80s action (the 90s can be roughly split between these two eras of action) is that 2000s action was very interested in tapping into the youth demographic, specifically by embracing “urban” culture and you can see that in the first film Jet Li was chosen to star in: Romeo Must Die. There is of course a long history of interaction between the world of kung fu movies and African American cinemagoers going from Black Belt Jones to that song “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Wu Tang Clan and Jackie Chan’s first major Hollywood success did come from teaming up with Chris Tucker, but Jet Li was (to my knowledge) the first major Asian martial arts star to really try to come into the American market through the black youth market first. The potentially interesting thing about Romeo Must Die is that it’s a movie about racial conflict in America that is almost devoid of white people; as the title implies, it invokes the Romeo and Juliet story by setting up a conflict between African American and Chinese gangs in Oakland and having the son of the Chinese gang leader and the daughter of the African American gang leader fall for each other… but that’s less central to the movie than the title implies. Jet Li’s character is a bit detached from all of this as he’s only recently arrived from Hong Kong and his love interest, played by the late R&B singer Aaliyah, is depicted as a pampered daughter who has been sheltered from the “family business,” so neither are all that conflicted about crossing the lines of this war and on top of that they don’t really have a terribly passionate romance.
So, the Shakespearian parallels here aren’t terribly strong, but I do think this role plays to Jet Li’s strengths more than his villain turn in Lethal Weapon 4 and he does have a clear charm to him here even if he’s still not entirely skilled in the English language and isn’t exactly giving an Oscar caliber performance, but he’s not as central to the movie as he maybe should be. There’s actually a lot of screen time devoted to the supporting characters here, particularly the leaders of the African American gang, and if I were to pinpoint a fatal flaw with the movie it’s probably that. There isn’t as much DMX in the film as I had been led to believe there would be, instead we spend a lot of time with Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington and various other henchmen and they really aren’t as interesting as the screenplay seems to think they are. Humanizing your villains can be an interesting move under certain circumstances, but this half-baked screenplay is not smart enough to pull that trick off and it most just distracts from the protagonists and makes you less inclined to root for their rebellion against the closed minded fathers.
Of course, the even bigger thing that this focus on side characters distracts from is of course the action, which is certainly in the movie but it’s not as extensive as you might think. I think I’ve read that at the time it was assumed that American audiences wouldn’t have the attention span for extended martial arts scenes and you can see that philosophy at work here as the fight scenes are often frustratingly short. They’re also a bit over-edited and the stunts aren’t really captured in the wide shot as much as they should be. I’m generally a bit more understanding of this kind of action direction than some people, but straight-up kung fu movies especially need a bit more space to breathe. The one idea that the film does bring to this table are shots where it occasionally uses CGI to show sort of x-ray images of bones breaking during the fight scenes, which is kind of a precursor to a similar effect in the recent Mortal Kombat games, and there are one or two slightly interesting shots sprinkled throughout but there’s little here that would impress anyone who was well versed in real Hong Kong action cinema. But holding the movie to that standard probably isn’t fair, this was never meant to impress the hardcore audience for this kind of movie, it was meant to introduce it and by extension Jet Li to fourteen year olds and while it could have certainly done a better job even by that standard it’s a hard movie to be too mad at.
** out of Five
Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
I’ve described this series as an exploration into Jet Li’s American films but the truth is that at least two of the movies I’ll be looking at are technically French despite being English language action movies. These movies were both produced and written by Luc Besson, a director in his own right but also a major mogul who produces all sorts of English language films in France that most audiences would not give a second thought to the national origins of and would not distinguish as separate from anything made in Hollywood. Around this time his company would also be elevating the career of Jason Statham via The Transporter and its sequels and he would later be the one behind the Taken series and for whatever reason in the early 2000s he also wanted to be in the Jet Li business. For Jet Li the ability to work with Besson was an opportunity to keep his profile up in the western world while making some movies that were a bit more “hardcore” than what he made when he was in Hollywood. In fact Kiss of the Dragon was in many ways a movie that Jet Le specifically made to bolster his cred with martial arts fans in between a pair of DMX collaborations and in pre-release publicity he was actively touting that the fight scenes (mostly) weren’t driven by CGI or wirework.
The film’s story is a very familiar “wrong man on the run” narrative in which a Chinese intelligence agent arrives in Paris to take part in a joint task force to arrest a Chinese mafia boss only to be framed for the murder of this boss by an insanely evil corrupt police detective played by Tchéky Karyo and he must fight his way through Paris to clear his name. Beyond that there isn’t really much of a high concept or hook here to really make it stand out in people’s minds. So in that sense the movie makes a bit of a tradeoff: it isn’t a movie that’s trying too hard to be hip with “the kids” like Romeo Must Die but in trading in the cringe factor it maybe goes too far in the other direction into being downright flavorless. What it does have going for it is that it’s generally more violent than martial arts movies tended to be in this era. It wasn’t exactly The Raid, but it did have some nicely bloody moments and I certainly enjoyed the final fate of the Tchéky Karyo character. There are also a couple pretty good fights to be found in it like a scene late in the film where Li takes on a room full of gi-wearing French police in training carrying nightsticks. All told I probably would say its an improvement over the likes of Romeo Must Die or The One, but it’s not a dramatic improvement.
**1/2 out of Five
Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)
The Polish emigre Andrzej Bartkowiak was never a particularly beloved cinematographer, but during the 80s and 90s he put together a very respectable career. He helmed the Oscar winning Terms of Endearment and worked with Sidney Lumet a number of times on movies like The Verdict and Prince of the City and in the 90s he did work on some larger scale action movies like Speed and Dantes Peak. Finally in the early 2000s he was finally given the opportunity to direct and Hollywood decided that what the natural trajectory for this fifty year old Polish man was… to make three straight movie movies featuring DMX. You read that right. This is what made action movies in the early 2000s so… odd. They were trying really hard to tap into hip hop culture but they kept hiring these hacky old white guys like Bartkowiak and Rob Cohen to direct them. Barthowiak’s directorial debut was Romeo Must Die, which I’ve covered earlier. He seems to have been hired for that because he’d worked with Jet Li before as the cinematographer on Lethal Weapon 4. That movie had DMX in a small role and he would work again with the rapper on the film Exit Wounds with the at the time not quite washed up Steven Seagal, which also featured Tom Arnold and Romeo Must Die alum Anthony Anderson as a comedy relief. His third movie (and the last of his DMX trilogy) was Cradle 2 the Grave, a movie that’s titled like it’s the sequel to something, which it isn’t but given the cast it kind of simultaneously acted as a spiritual follow-up to both Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds by featuring DMX, Jet Li, Tom Arnold, and Anthony Anderson all in a sort of reunion feature.
DMX has a much bigger role here than he did in Romeo Must Die, to the point where he could definitely be considered a co-star to Jet Li and may even straight up be the film’s lead. Now, the idea of DMX being a movie star is probably kind of crazy to anyone who’s familiar with his music and public persona. He earned himself a reputation for being a rather unhinged personality with a very distinct vocal cadence and sure enough he is not a very good actor in the sense that I can’t really picture him playing anyone who isn’t a variation on himself, but he does have a certain coolness and screen presence if you’re willing to take him on his own terms. I also didn’t hate Tom Arnold or Anthony Anderson as comic relief even though both have their clunky moments here and there. As for the main attraction, I’d say Jet Li is in pretty good form here insomuch as he seems a bit more comfortable in his own skin than he did on a few of his earlier American films. He looks pretty cool in sunglasses and his English is getting better, though I must say that he does at times feel almost secondary in his own film here as evidenced by the fact that I find myself talking about a lot of people that aren’t him in this Jet Li retrospective review.
So, my expectations going into this thing were really low. I expected it to be the biggest piece of trash I encountered while looking through these Jet Li movies, and while in many ways it was that I will say I enjoyed it more than I expected even if it was in a slightly campy “so dumb it’s good kind” of way. You can tell that Bartkowiak has grown more confident in directing martial arts sequences since making Romeo Must Die and while there’s nothing here that will be remembered amongst the best in martial arts cinema the fights here do seem to be closer to what I’d consider competent. There’s also a memorably stupid chase scene in the film where DMX drives an ATV through the city and across rooftops while being chased by dudes on BMX motorcycles. That sequence doesn’t have the budget of late period Fast and the Furious movies, but I think they are sort of similar in spirit. The film also seems to presage those later Fast and Furious movies in that it starts out as a heist movie about multi-racial jewel thieves but ends up having them fight against a cabal or terrorists and rogue dictators who are trying to use diamonds as part of a weapon of mass destruction… which is a pretty bizarre and stupid plot twist. Really, the script here is quite messy and just straight up bad and on that level I can’t really defend it or the movie and for as polite as I’m being to this thing I don’t want to mislead anyone into watching this expecting it to be anything other than a dumb product of its time. But taken in the right spirit the movie can be enjoyable.
Unfortunately for Andrzej Bartkowiak this would sort of be the last hurrah for the “team” he assembled for his first three movies. After this he would try his hand at another disreputable early 2000s genre, video game adaptations, with another emerging star of the era (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) via the 2005 adaptation of Doom which no one liked. He then made the embarrassingly dreadful Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and has been pretty much washed up since then. He did a little bit of cinematography work in the 2010s and made some kind of weird Russian/Hollywood co-production that went direct-to-video called Maximum Impact and otherwise didn’t do much in the last decade. But to those who care Bartkowiak did matter, he’ll always be remembered as the man who introduced Jet Li to the English speaking world.
*** out of Five
To Be Continued in Part 2