The 10 Absolutely Essential Jet Li Movies
As one of the biggest martial arts movie stars of all time, Jet Li has starred in dozens of films on both sides of the Pacific. Most Westerners probably recognize Li for his roles in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), Romeo Must Die (2000), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), and The Expendables (2010) movies, which means many of them probably haven’t delved into Li’s rich history in Chinese cinema. But these are the movies that made Li into an international star.
To appreciate Li at his best, check out these ten classics starring him.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Though Li’s first movie was 1982’s Shaolin Temple, his breakthrough role was in Once Upon a Time in China. Li stars as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. The period piece inspired five sequels, though Li only stars in 1992’s Once Upon a Time in China II, 1993’s Once Upon a Time in China III, and 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America.
The Legend of the Swordsman/Swordsman II (1992)
Jet Li didn’t appear in the 1990 film The Swordsman, so the sequel was actually released in the U.S. as The Legend of the Swordsman. It is Li’s highest grossing film at the Hong Kong box office and is noted for its captivating wirework.
Tai Chi Master/Twin Warriors (1993)
Also released in the U.S. as Twin Warriors, in Tai Chi Master Li co-starred with female martial arts movie favorite Michelle Yeoh. The two would appear together again in 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
Fong Sai Yuk/The Legend (1993)
Mother-son team-up movies are rare in martial arts movies, but in this one Li teams with his mother, played by Josephine Siao, to kick ass. Only four months later, a sequel also starring Li and Siao, Fong Sai-yuk II, was released.
Fist of Legend (1994)
Regarded by most as Li’s best film (it has a rare 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes), Fist of Legend is full of stunning, mostly-wireless fight scene choreography, including a fight between Li and Yasuaki Kurata and Billy Chow. Many believe that the Wachowskis were heavily influenced by this film while making The Matrix.
My Father is a Hero/The Enforcer (1995)
Also released as The Enforcer in the U.S., My Father is a Hero isn’t one of Li’s better-reviewed films but did team him with Mo Tse, who was already impressing many with his martial arts skills despite being only ten years old. The pair previously worked together as father and son in 1994’s The New Legend of Shaolin.
Black Mask (1996)
Somewhat ahead of its time, Li stars as a super-soldier vigilante in Black Mask, a movie that blends action, sci-fi, and even a little comedy in a way most superhero movie fans love. Li did not return for the sequel, 2002’s Black Mask 2: City of Masks.
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
Li finally had a huge American breakthrough playing the villain in the fourth (and final) Lethal Weapon movie opposite Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Rene Russo, Joe Pesci, and Chris Rock. For many people around the world, this was their first introduction to the martial arts legend.
Though Li has continued to make American films, most people rate his Chinese films higher in terms of quality. One example is Hero, which was at one point the highest-grossing film in Chinese box office history. Quentin Tarantino became a huge fan of this historical martial arts movie and lent his name to the release (as “Quentin Tarantino Presents”). Hero remains the highest-grossing Chinese film at the U.S. box office, grossing $53.7 million.
2006’s Fearless sits behind Li’s Hero as the second-highest-grossing Chinese film at the U.S. box office. Fearless is a period piece that features Li as real-life martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia. Seek out the director’s cut, which features Michelle Yeoh in a small role.