When I was a kid, I did Tae Kwon-Do for a couple of years because I wanted to beat people up, just like Jet Li. Man, that guy could break a wrist quicker than you can snap your fingers. I'll never forget the first time I saw one of his films. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old and Channel 4 had a Jet Li season. The first one I saw was 'The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk' and it was absolutely electrifying. The fighting was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Jet Li had a speed, agility, strength and athleticism that neither Jackie Chan nor Bruce Lee possessed. Needless to say, I avidly watched the remaining films in the season and some, like 'Once Upon a Time in China', were just as good as 'The Legend'. At this time, however, Li was yet to make a film in America. You can only imagine my sheer joy at spotting a poster for 'Lethal Weapon 4' in 1998 and seeing his face on it. I was delighted - my kung-fu idol was coming to Hollywood! That was just before The Disappointment began.
Upon watching 'Lethal Weapon 4' - a fairly enjoyable but ultimately unnecessary sequel - I was dismayed to see that Jet Li had roughly 7 minutes of screen-time in the whole feature, and his fight scenes were agonizingly short. I was disappointed. I reminded myself that he was merely the villain in this film, and that in his next one he would be the main attraction and would therefore get into much longer fights. That film, 'Romeo Must Die', isn't very good. It did give me what I immediately craved - Jet Li breaking bones and whipping people in the face with things - but its overall lack of quality left me longing for a Jet Li film of substance, like 'Fist of Legend'. So The Disappointment was slightly alleviated for a couple of years until 'The One' came out. That film really is a piece of shit. It's so awful. The plot is absurd, the acting laughable, and the fights so effects-laden that they're difficult to engage with. All in all, 'The One' severely damaged Jet Li's status as my action hero, so much so that I still haven't bothered to see 'Cradle 2 Tha Grave' or 'Unleashed' (which in the US is called 'Danny the Dog').
Ironically enough, 'Hero' was the film that restored some of Li's lost hero status. Now, 'Hero' is not a great film...but it's good enough. Personally, I have a strong distaste for the whole 'Crouching Tiger' style of fighting, where everyone is apparently Superman and can fly around in the air with no regard for the laws of physics. This type of combat is rife in 'Hero', but I enjoyed it nonetheless and Jet Li was finally moving towards making a good movie. Despite that, The Disappointment soon returned stronger than ever because Li had been in Hollywood for a few years now and was a massive name in action films, but he was still making movies that weren't even half as good as his Hong Kong ones. Until now.
A few weeks ago I saw a poster for Jet Li's latest film, 'Fearless', and it said that it was his last martial arts epic. I found this quote on IMDb - "I stepped into the martial arts movie market when I was only 16. I think I have proved my ability in this field and it won't make sense for me to continue for another five or 10 years. (Fearless) is a conclusion to my life as a martial arts star.". I went to see it, and thank the Gods, it's actually amazing. It feels like one of his old Huang Fei-Hong films but with a Hollywood budget, which is EXACTLY what I've been waiting for for the last eight years. The fighting is the best he's done since he came to America and - get this - he even puts in a decent acting performance. I loved every second of that film, but this happiness was quickly followed by sadness as I realised that, although Jet Li had efficiently murdered The Disappointment with a well-placed chop to the oesophagus, his retirement from the world of martial arts films means I will never see him break another bone. Who will fill his shoes? Jackie Chan? Not a Chan-ce. He's been a full-time buffoon for years now and couldn't make a serious film if you put a katana to his throat. No, only Thai-boxing sensation Tony Jaa could possibly fill the void left by Li. His enthralling 2003 show-piece 'Ong-Bak' showed that he has the skills, but will they pay the bills? Only time will tell.