- Jet Li, a Hong Kong action movie legend, didn't achieve the same level of success in Hollywood as Jackie Chan.
- After appearing in Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li was in high demand and starred in several action movies with decent budgets.
- Jet Li's filmography includes both B-grade action flicks and bona fide blockbusters like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and the Expendables series.
Before appearing as Wah Sing Ku in 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li was already a Hong Kong action movie legend. His mastery of Wushu made him stand out in celebrated pictures such as 1994’s Fist of Legend and the Once Upon a Time in China series, building up a reputation as one of the best martial arts actors on the planet. Yet, despite the fanfare and talent to boot, Li didn’t conquer Hollywood like Jackie Chan did. Make no mistake – the audience knows who he is, and he made a lot of entertaining action flicks throughout the years, but he was always on the cusp of breaking the glass ceiling without ever truly doing so.
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By no means does this mean he’s unsuccessful – quite the contrary – but it’s simply an interesting observation to note and explore further. There must be a point in which the course of Jet Li’s career changed, and that’s what needs to be uncovered here.
Jet Li’s journey in Hollywood
After Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li was in high demand. None of the films were blockbusters per se, but they were action movies with decent-to-good budgets. In fact, Li made a handful of movies that became video store classics and firm favourites of Friday night television. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s 2000 action banger Romeo Must Die paired Li and Aaliyah in a fast and furious picture that features martial arts choreography courtesy of Corey Yeun. A year later, Li traversed the multiverse to kill alternate versions of himself in the James Wong-directed The One, which also stars Jason Statham and Carla Gugino. Then, in 2003, Li teamed up with Bartkowiak once again to create Cradle 2 the Grave, which also features DMX.
Li would continue to appear in B-grade action flicks throughout the next two decades. However, he also received the chance to star in bona fide blockbusters, such as 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor where he plays the titular villain and the first three Expendables series in which he portrays Yin Yang. More recently, in 2020, he starred as the Emperor of China in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s Mulan.
Not a shabby filmography by any means, right?
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He didn’t want to enter The Matrix
Jet Li’s career hit a crossroads around 2003 when he received the opportunity of the lifetime: To star as Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The original 1999 film became a worldwide phenomenon as it introduced elements of Hong Kong action cinema to western audiences and boasted jaw-dropping martial arts sequences designed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping. Yeun had worked with Li in the past on films such as Fist of Legend and Tai Chi Master, and returned for The Matrix Reloaded, so there was a natural connection there that could have led to serious greatness on screen.
There was one concern that prevented him from taking the role, and he opened up about it years later. “It was a commercial struggle for me,” he told Abacus News. “I realised the Americans wanted me to film for three months but be with the crew for nine. And for six months, they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library. By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them.”
Li added how he had spent his whole life sharpening his martial arts skills, but the filmmakers could own his moves and likeness forever. While it might have sounded like a silly argument back then, Li’s concerns proved to be merited decades later, as the topic of digital likeness continues to be a controversial issue in the entertainment industry.
Li turned down the role of the Oracle’s bodyguard, with Collin Chou taking the part of Seraph.
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Did this effect his career?
While Jet Li continued to work in Hollywood even after turning down the chance to star in The Matrix sequels, it’s likely his stance toward the use of his digital likeness rubbed up the greedy execs the wrong way and he may have been quietly blackballed from bigger projects at the time. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that his appearance in The Matrix could have taken him to another level of celebrity and opened the door to more roles in the future, but he chose to stick to his guns and principles – and that’s something to be admired rather than admonished. That said, it isn’t like Collin Chou experienced a wave of success after starring as Seraph either.
Regardless, much like the characters he plays on screen, Li landed on his feet just fine and continues to be a heralded action star around the globe – even if he never quite conquered Hollywood the way some may have imagined.
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