While I've enjoyed many of Li's movies since high school, I should disclose that I'm more of a Jackie Chan guy at heart. But rewatching some of Li's movies the last couple days, it's given me an added appreciation of his style and how his fights play out. There's a lot of speed and creativity in his films, and a whole lot of power as well. More than anything, I'm struck by his versatility. Here's a guy who made his stardom doing wire-work films with astounding grace, and yet he can also do convincing contemporary fights that balance the formalism of his wushu training with the looseness of street combat.
Like the Jackie Chan list, instead of ranking these fights, I've selected a dozen scenes, only one per movie, and have arranged them chronologically with a video. When I couldn't find a video to embed, I've provided a link.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991) - The Deadly Art of Ladder-Fu
Let's start this off with the star-making film. Once Upon a Time in China is a masterpiece. Starring Jet Li as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, the film heralded a boom of Hong Kong action cinema through the 1990s. It's the first collaboration between Li and director Tsui Hark, who reteamed for The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and also the first collaboration between Li and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, who have worked together on six other films since (if I'm remembering right).
So many great fights are in this film, but in the finale, Li does gravity-defying battle against Shi-Kwan Yen (Iron Monkey) in a room full of ladders. In the process they make a compelling argument for the awesomeness of wire-work and fantasy martial arts. It may be an acquired taste, but it's so imaginative and inventive, and I just adore that Wong Fei-Hung theme song that plays throughout. These kinds of fantastical fights I tend to think of more as superhero scruffs featuring martial arts.
Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) - Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen
Sometimes for a fight to be great, it has as much to do with the lead performer as the opponent. So far it seems like Jet Li's best opponent has been Donnie Yen. The two are so evenly matched in size, speed, and skill, and they were even both part of the Beijing Wushu Team. (As much as I liked the concept of The One, the fights probably would have looked a whole lot better if they got Donnie to double Jet.)
Once Upon a Time in China II is another action masterpiece like the first film in the series. There's such an inventive delirium in this last fight joined to remarkable choreography. When Li and Yen come face to face, there's such precision and timing to every movement. Li and Yen are as great a pairing as Jackie Chan and Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, or Yen and Collin Chou. While in town for the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, Yen mentioned that Jet Li was his favorite on-screen opponent. It was great when they eventually met again...
Tai Chi Master (1993) - Jet Li vs. Chin Siu Ho
I'd mentioned previously the idea of fantasy martial arts as superhero battles, and Tai Chi Master is a great example of this. Here we see Jet Li and Chin Siu Ho fly, hurl people like tomatoes, do impossible feats of balance, and then play hacky sack with each other's bodies. You'll note Michelle Yeoh (a good candidate for future Expendablesing) making an appearance in the film as well. One of the Li movies I didn't have a chance to rewatch is Swordsman II, and even though Tai Chi Master and Swordsman II are different films, I wonder how these two stack up against each other since they were made around the same time.
Fong Sai-Yuk II (1993) - The Unbelievable Blindfolded Alleyway of Death
Fong Sai-Yuk was another Chinese folk hero, though not as well known to most westerners as Wong Fei-Hung. Li portrayed Fong Sai-Yuk in two eponymous films which came out in the same year. They weren't filmed back to back, however. The first film was such a success that they immediately started on the second. While the first Fong Sai-Yuk is a superior movie to its sequel, Fong Sai-Yuk II does have this memorable fight. When I first watched Li go blindfolded through this crowd in a flurry of glinting steel, I immediately rewound the tape and watched it again, twice.
The Bodyguard from Beijing (1994) - Jet Li vs. Collin Chou
Sometimes in a fight I just need a strange set-up, and that's what's up with this fight against Collin Chou (he was Seraph in the Matrix sequels and fought Donnie Yen in Flashpoint). The room is filled with gas, so a gunshot will blow everything up. Li and Chou fight while dealing with the gas in the air, which leads to some great action choreography centered around a faucet.
Fist of Legend (1994) - Jet Li vs. Billy Chow
Fist of Legend is my favorite Jet Li film. A remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, Li takes on the occupying Japanese while rarely breaking his stoic and noble poise. There are many great fights in the movie, and most of them only use wires for emphasis rather than the centerpiece of the action. There are two scenes in particular I really love in addition to the one above. There's the rematch with Chin Siu Ho, where we see Li do his own take on the broken rhythm and footwork of Bruce Lee's jeet kune do. There's also a blindfolded, gentlemanly duel in a field against the venerable Kurata Yasuaki.
But the final fight of the film against a seemingly invincible Billy Chow is a real thing of beauty. It's a brutal back and forth, and at one point Li needs to fight with one arm because his shoulder gets dislocated from one of Chow's power punches. The way Li fixes his busted arm is so badass that it makes Martin Riggs's shoulder reset in Lethal Weapon 2 seem amateur.
My Father Is a Hero (1995) - Jet Li & son
I first saw the last fight of My Father Is a Hero way back when on some international channel on cable, maybe in 1996 or 1997. There are a few phases to the fight, and each is worth watching, but the moment that sticks most in my mind is when Jet Li uses his son in the film (Miu Tse) as a weapon. It is insane in the best possible way, and a moment I cite whenever I talk about this movie to friends (e.g., "So there's this Jet Li movie you should at least watch for the final fight." "Why?" "He throws his kid around and used him like a whip or flail.") Li and Tse also starred together in The New Legend of Shaolin (1994), where Tse also gets to kick lots of ass.
Dr. Wai in "The Scripture with No Words" (1996) - Ninjas and sumo wrestlers
Dr. Wai is a kung-fu comedy about escapism with two interlocked narratives: one involves a pulp character dubbed the Adventure King, the other involves his hard-luck writer in the real world, both played by Li. In the real world, Li's hit a patch of writer's block because of his crumbling personal life, so his friends jump in and help him finish his Adventure King story. This leads to a madcap series of random set pieces, such as the one seen above. A bit of a cross between Walter Mitty, Indiana Jones, and theArmor of God films, I enjoy it for the sheer zaniness.
It's admittedly been a long time since I've watched this and I couldn't find my VHS copy of Dr. Wai from high school (or Li's Shanghai Noon riff Once Upon a Time in China and America). I learned while trying to watch Dr. Wai online that there's a second cut of the film that eliminates all of the real-world material. The result is a crazed, incomprehensible pulp story that really doesn't make much sense or have any punch.
Kiss of the Dragon (2001) - Jet Li vs. The Twins
(Note: The video wouldn't allow embedding, so watch Jet Li take on The Twins here. Start at 3:30.) Kiss of the Dragon was one of Li's better English-language films. He made a memorable stateside debut in Lethal Weapon 4, then mostly had his talents squandered in Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave. But there's a lot of great beat 'em up scenes here in Kiss of the Dragon, including the dojo throwdown that precedes my favorite fight in the film: the twins, played by non-twins Cyril Raffaelli and Didier Azoulay. (That dojo scene starts at 1:30 in the link, in case you were wondering.) Note how the twins scene isn't just about Li being tough. There's problem-solving going on, and you get a sense of Li's thought process during the fight as he figures out how to take on two people who seem unbeatable.
Hero (2002) - Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen (rematch)
It took 10 years, but we finally got that rematch between Jet Li and Donnie Yen via Zhang Yimou's elegant period film Hero. The entire scene plays out meditatively and brutally, and remains one of the most memorable parts of a movie filled with memorable parts. Once you've finished watching this, check out this alternate version of the Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen fight in Hero which we shared earlier in the year. I like both, but have a preference for the unused version.
I'd love to see Li and Yen square off again in another movie some time soon, especially now that Yen seems to have found his own voice as an action star. It would be interesting to see Li's tai chi and long fist style go up against Yen's MMA-infused style. If Yen's ever up to it, there's always The Expendables 3, but I have a feeling that a rematch would be better in a Hong Kong production.
Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) (2005) - Jet Li vs. Mike Lambert
(Note: The video wouldn't allow embedding, so watch Jet Li take on Mike Lambert here. Start at 6:25.) Unleashed is Jet Li's most underrated English-language film, but the plot may be a high and absurd hurdle for many: Li plays a human attack dog who escapes and tries to live a normal life. This is the kind of plot you'd expect and accept in a Hong Kong movie. There are several great fights in the film, including an encounter with fellow Expendables 2 co-star Scott Adkins, but the highlight is the Mike Lambert fight, especially when they get to the bathroom. It's rough, close-quarters combat, which makes for a really intense exchange between the two fighters. I wouldn't mind seeing Li and Lambert go at it again for a third time, actually. The two fought for the first time in Black Mask (1996).
Fearless (2006) - Jet Li vs. Chen Zhi Hui
Like Fist of Legend, picking one fight out of Fearless is tough. I love the platform fight and the challenges that Huo Yuanjia is put through, but I decided to go with the pivotal and destructive scene above. Given, it was also one of the only full fights I could find online, but it's one of the most important in the film. This is the dark center of Fearless. It's supposed to be a duel about honor and revenge, but it's really a depiction of Yuanjia's hubris. In the aftermath it becomes a crucial pivot point for Li's character -- pride goes before the fall, but what a dark and merciless bit of pride this is. Here we see Li battle with nothing but arrogant rage. There's been a lot of yang on the list, so here is some yin for balance.
Bonus: The Shaolin Temple (1982) - The Shape of Action to Come
How about a baker's dozen? Here's Li first film appearance, The Shaolin Temple. This old school kung-fu classic stars Li at only 19 years old. I don't think the fights in the movie qualify as the best work he's done, but this training sequence is a showcase of that early skill Li possessed. After letting this percolate through some all right efforts in the 1980s, he would be ready to take on the world.
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