One of the world's biggest action stars, Jet Li Lian Jie was born on April 26, 1963 in the outskirts of Beijing, China in a town named Heibei. At a young age, he developed an interest in wu shu (the dominant martial art in Mainland China, favored by the government because it promotes movement rather than force) and enrolled in an academy. The school's teacher, Wu Ben, took an immediate interest to Li, seeing his natural talent. Over the years, Wu and Li would develop a father/son relationship, which was made all that much stronger since Li's own father died when he was two years old. Wu would often single out Li and give him extra tasks to do; Li at first felt bad about this, but in later years, he realized that Wu saw something in him and was only trying to bring it out. Li's skills developed quickly, and he eventually won many competitions and even performed in front of US president Richard Nixon at the White House as part of the Chinese/US cultural exchange during the 1970's.
When Li was 19, he appeared in his first film, Shaolin Temple. Li was already regarded as a national hero for his athletic accomplishments, and the film (the first modern kung-fu movie made in China) shot him to superstardom in China. Fans flocked to various temples, hoping to imitate their hero. Li -- a quiet and shy man -- felt uncomfortable with his fame. He ventured into films with the idea of bringing interest of wu shu to the populace, not to become a star. Nevertheless, he continued to appear in a series of popular Shaolin films, such as Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986) and also directed a film, Born to Defence (also 1986).
Wishing to find a wider audience for his work, Li moved to America and appeared in 1988's Dragon Fight. The film failed to find an audience, but Li seemed determined to stick it out. Eventually, he hooked up with noted producer/director Tsui Hark and the two -- using some of their own money -- created The Master in 1990. This time, the film (which had a miniscule budget and looked cheap even comapred to many US B-movies) didn't even reach a distributor; it was shelved until 1992. But Tsui and Li had formed a bond and Tsui convinced Li to come with him back to Hong Kong.
It was with Tsui that Li found international stardom. 1991's Once Upon a Time in China, which had Li taking on the role of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, was a huge hit and is now regarded as one of the best martial arts movies ever. The following two sequels were also very popular, so it was quite a surprise when Li quit the series. Rumors abounded of everything from money disputes to Triad "involvement." At any rate, Li moved away from Wong Fei-Hung -- at least temporarily. After Swordsman II (1993), Li starred in another movie about a Chinese folk hero, Fong Sai Yuk (also 1993). The movie was again a huge hit, but perhaps more importantly, this was the first time he worked with Corey Yuen Kwai. Yuen would go on to work in some capacity on almost all of Li's next films, either as director or fight co-ordinator.
Li's next choice of a director to work with again puzzled many people. With Last Hero in China (1993), Li began a series of films that involved producer/director Wong Jing. Wong and Tsui Hark are quite the opposites in the HK film world; Tsui's films are known for being lavish, big-budget affairs with deep storylines, while Wong's (while equally popular with local audiences) are known for being cheap and full of sex, violence and crude humor. Many people (especially tabloid reporters) came up with many theories as to why Li worked with Wong. Some said it was due to Li's lingering resentment at Tsui; others surmised that Wong used Triad connections to "convince" Li to work with him. At any rate, Li's work during this period ranged from parody (Last Hero in China had Li once again playing Wong Fei-Hung, but for laughs, as in one scene where he dresses up in a rooster outfit) to romance (with 1994's The Bodyguard from Beijing, a HK remanke of the Kevin Costner movie) to gun-fu action (such as 1995's High Risk, a movie "inspired" by Die Hard) and gained him a worldwide following of fans.
In 1994, Li, Corey Yuen and rising director Gordon Chan. worked on a remake of Bruce Lee's classic Fist of Fury. Li was a bit hesitant to work on the film. He was hounded by billings of him being the "next Bruce Lee" his whole cinematic life, and Li knew (and himself felt) that Lee was somewhat of a "cinematic God" all around the world. Li, Chan and Yuen worked closely together to create a movie that would both satisfy fans of Bruce Lee, fans of Jet Li, and also (like the original film did) bring in new fans. They decided to forgo much of the wire-fu (a style which makes people seem as if they are flying, shooting fireballs or other exaggerated movements by using hidden wires and other camera tricks) Li used in most of his recent work (a result of being injured on the set on Once Upon a Time in China) and stick with a harder, more realistic style that was closer to Bruce Lee's own work. The result was Li's biggest success in years and what many people consider to be his best movie ever, Fist of Legend.
Despite the rumors about their relationship, Li went back to working with Tsui Hark with the Tsui-produced sci-fi/action extravaganza Black Mask in 1996. In 1997, Li once again stepped into the shoes of Wong Fei-Hung in the last movie in the OUATIC series, Once Upon a Time in China and America. After filming wrapped on Hitman (1998), Li was approached by American producers for the role of a villain in the latest installment of the popular Lethal Weapon series. Li, wanting to secure a steady future for his two children, took the offer -- as long as he was able to bring Corey Yuen over to direct his fight scenes. The film (despite lukewarm reviews) was a huge hit and successfully introduced Li to America. In fact, audiences responded so well to Li that his face and name were added to the film's poster after its' opening weekend.
Like Jackie Chan before him, Li's initial US success led to a spate of re-releases of his older work. Unlike Chan, though, these films were released uncut, besides some title changes and re-dubbed soundtracks. In 2000, Li made his US starring debut with Romeo Must Die. While not a runaway success, RMD earned back three times its' budget and paved the way for future projects for Li, which may include an appearance in a sequel to The Matrix, a role as "Kato" in a remake of The Green Hornet and a film with La Femme Nikita director Luc Besson. Li's good friend Corey Yuen has also begun to find success in the US as well, going on to do work on the live-action adaptation of the popular comic book X-Men.