Total Recall

Total Recall: Jet Li's Best-Reviewed Films

We celebrate the best work of the famed wushu champ and Mummy star.

by and | July 30, 2008 | Comments

This week, with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor hitting theaters, we thought it would be a great time to take a close look at the filmography of star Jet Li, one of the most dynamic and successful martial arts performers of recent years.

Born in Beijing, Li Lianjie was wushu champion at an absurdly young age (he was dubbed “Jet” because of his quickness and power). Retiring from competition at 17, he utilized his formidable martial arts skills in a series of epic films based upon Chinese legends. But it isn’t just his athletic grace and power that has impressed audiences; Li exudes a hard-to-quantify stoicism and intensity in his performances that lend a greater level of emotional heft than your typical martial arts master. Although his Western films haven’t enjoyed the level of popularity he received in Hong Kong, he’s still a draw, as this year’s The Forbidden Kingdom proves. Without further ado, we present Li’s best-reviewed films.

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10. Once Upon a Time in China 3
(1992, 67 percent)

The third time was definitely not the charm for this venerable series. Li is back as Wong Fei Hung, and this time he’s embroiled in a whole mess of drama: he’s participating in a brutal kung fu competition, he has to stop an assassination attempt on the president, and he has to keep a whole lotta gangsters from ripping him to shreds. Critics found OUATIC 3 to be a serious letdown after the dazzling inventiveness of the first two films, and some of that might have been because of on-set tensions; Li and director Tsui Hark, who had helmed the first two installments, acrimoniously parted ways after III (they’ve since made up). Still, even at the ebb of their collaboration, Hark’s visual flair and Li’s athletic prowess elevate III above most martial arts fare. The film has a “strong blend of humor, action and drama,” wrote Doug Pratt of

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9. The Defender
(1994, 71 percent)

The Defender (aka The Bodyguard from Beijing) found Li in a quasi-remake of The Bodyguard; it was a vehicle that allowed Li to put his skills to use in a contemporary setting after a long stretch of period epics (the movie kicked off Li’s “gun-fu” period). It also allowed him to show his softer, more romantic side. Directed by Corey Yuen, The Defender is the story of Allan (Li), an elite bodyguard who’s tasked with protecting Michelle, the mistress of a rich businessman, after she’s the only witness in a brutal mob slaying. At first, Michelle bristles at being sequestered in her apartment, but soon she comes to respect Allan’s efforts to keep her safe, and romance blossoms. The Defender is loaded with shootouts, double-crossings, and some wacky humor — and even if the critics may have found the plot a bit predictable, “All this is made up for by the sheer visceral pleasure of Jet Li’s charisma,” as James Rocchi of Netflix put it. Unfortunately, audiences weren’t as forgiving, as The Defender was one of Li’s first big flops in Hong Kong.

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8. Fearless
(2006, 74 percent)

If, as Li has claimed, Fearless is indeed his last wushu epic, he went out with a bang. Directed by Ronny Yu and choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, Fearless is loosely based upon the life of martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia (also the basis for the master in Fist of Legend). Set in the early 1900s, Fearless tells the story of how Huo became one of the most famous fighters in China — before his arrogance got the best of him. After a series of personal (and near fatal) hardships, Huo is nursed back to health by a kindly woman in a remote community; it’s there that he realizes that the noble martial arts he has studied have become corrupted by brutality; he seeks to make good on his early promise, clear his family’s name, and restore China to the forefront of fighting. Though the critics found Fearless less impressive than Li’s early 1990s epics, they still found plenty of emotional and spiritual heft in addition to several excellent action scenes. “The film is about more than complex stunts and breathtaking acrobatics,” wrote Forrest Harman of the Reno Journal-Gazette. “It’s about a man who learns the pitfalls of pride and becomes a national hero in the process. And it’s a good time at the movies.”

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7. The Legend of the Swordsman
(1991, 75 percent)

The Legend of the Swordsman (also known as Swordsman II was Li’s highest-grossing Hong Kong film, and following the success of the Shaolin Temple series, it cemented his status as the king of the period martial arts epic. In this sequel to 1990’s Swordsman, Li steps into the role of Ling (played in the previous installment by Sam Hui), who is relocating his martial arts school to a remote mountain locale. However, he discovers that his friends, a group of female fighters, have been attacked, and Princess Yin-Yin (on whom he’s totally crushed out) has been kidnapped, by her evil uncle, who also has a scroll that outlines plenty of killer martial arts moves. Colorful, well-photographed, with a complex plot and plenty of gravity-defying fights, Legend of the Swordsman is considered a classic of the genre by many devotes. The movie contains “dazzling photography and equally dazzling fight scenes,” said Robert Roten of Laramie Movie Scope.

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6. Twin Warriors
(1993, 83 percent)

The plot of Twin Warriors (also known as Tai Chi Master) may be as old as the hills, but it continued Li’s winning streak, thanks to its electric, nimble set pieces and the able support of fellow martial arts legend (and Tomb of the Dragon Emperor co-star) Michele Yeoh. Junbao (Li) and Tienbo (Chin Sui Ho) are close friends and fellow monks who are expelled from a Shaolin temple for their troublemaking ways. Soon, they’ve gone their separate ways; Tienbo has become a powerful, despotic military head, and Li, with help from Siu Lin (Yeoh) is engaged in an uprising against him. Like many of Li’s period martial arts extravaganzas from this period, Twin Warriors is both opulent and exhilarating, and features an absolutely bonkers finale in which Tienbo literally uses an army of thousands of extras as weapons against Junbao. “Nonstop action leads to furiously ingenious set pieces shot with the traditional wire harnesses and outlandish effects,” wrote Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle.

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The Legend
(1993, 89 percent)

One good turn as a Chinese folk hero deserves another, so for 1993’s The Legend (or, if you prefer the original title, Fong Sai-yuk), Li suited up as — you guessed it — Fong Sai-yuk, the legendary 18th century hero. Tempering all the sweeping melodrama here is a plot that focuses on Fong’s younger years, when he was more concerned with loafing — and chasing after an illicit affair with the Manchu governor’s daughter — than concentrating on nobler pursuits. Fortunately, his mother is around to help keep him out of trouble; unfortunately, according to legend, his mom was such a formidable warrior that she regularly broke Fong’s bones in an effort to make him nearly invulnerable. Painful as that sounds, The Legend (which satirized the Once Upon a Time in China series) extended Li’s stellar track record at the box office, proving so successful that a sequel (titled, naturally, Fong Sai-yuk II) was produced in time to reach theaters the same year.


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Once Upon a Time in China
(1991, 89 percent)

At once entertaining, culturally significant, and massively successful at the box office, Once Upon a Time in China helped kick off the resurgence of period martial arts movies that started in the 1990s, as well as spawning a franchise that saw Li play Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung repeatedly throughout the decade, starring in the series’ second, third, and sixth installments, as well as the spoofy spinoff Last Hero in China. Though criticized for straying into outlandish territory, Once Upon a Time nonetheless explores China’s early attempts to bridge the gap between tradition and modernization, examines social taboos, and — of course — contains more than a few terrific fight scenes. “Aided immeasurably by the acrobatic skills of its brilliant star, Once Upon A Time in China delivers the kinetic goods,” wrote Bilge Ebiri of Citysearch.

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3. Once Upon a Time in China II
(1992, 93 percent)

Just a year after raking in healthy box-office receipts with Once Upon a Time in China, Li returned as the legendary Wong Fei Hung in the first sequel — and managed to outdo the first installment, grossing over $30 million during its Hong Kong theatrical run. Like the first chapter in the saga, Once Upon a Time in China II combines eye-popping martial arts action with a lesson in Chinese history; this time around, the storyline is based on events that transpired around the Boxer Rebellion that took place after the first Sino-Japanese War. Don’t worry, though — even if you slept through your world history courses, you’ll still be able to enjoy watching Li whoop copious amounts of bad guy butt (including HK superstar Donnie Yen). “More concentrated and svelte than its precursor, Once Upon a Time II also has the benefit of fights staged by Master Yuen Woo-Ping that show Jet Li — another camera-age hero — to even greater advantage,” wrote J. Hoberman of the Village Voice.


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2. Hero
(2004, 95 percent)

Hero was a massive success in Hong Kong when it was released in December 2002, but that didn’t stop Miramax — the studio that held American rights to the film — from sitting on it for nearly two years, delaying its release six times. It took Quentin Tarantino‘s pull to get Hero into American theaters, and when it finally debuted in August 2004, it took the box office crown for the week, earning over $18 million and a spot among the highest-grossing foreign films in U.S. history. Critics enjoyed Hero almost as much as audiences, sending it to 95 percent on the Tomatometer — but their praise wasn’t quite universal. Though the movie’s visual beauty is impossible to deny, some have taken issue with what they see as a tacit approval of totalitarianism. Don’t care about politics? Not to worry — Hero comes equipped with enough wire-assisted fighting to slake your thirst for epic martial arts action. “The simple fact of the matter is this: Hero is the best martial arts movie I have ever seen,” wrote David Cornelius of

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1. Fist of Legend
(1994, 100 percent)

Li was already an established star when he signed on for Fist of Legend — but still, it takes more than a little chutzpah to remake a classic like Bruce Lee‘s Fists of Fury. Fortunately, the results speak for themselves; at 100 percent on the Tomatometer, Legend is not only Li’s highest-rated film, but it’s entered the pantheon of established martial arts classics. And for good reason: Although there’s plenty of good old-fashioned action, the movie also makes room for a suitably twisty plot, as well as some important themes (including an updated take on the racism that fueled the original) and fight scenes so good that they convinced the Wachowski brothers to hire choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for The Matrix. It isn’t his highest-grossing film — in fact, it was something of a box-office disappointment — but any argument for Jet Li’s status as a martial arts movie superstar should begin with Fist of Legend. “[It’s] a marvel to watch,” wrote Ryan Cracknell of the Apollo Guide.

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