Continuing my selection of the Top 10 Jet Li movies, I dedicate this second half to the more fantastic settings, exaggerated kung-fu fights, folk heroes and their stories. Personally, I like my martial arts movies with their feet standing on the ground! But if I had to choose my favorite wire fu movies, I'd pick this list as well. The action, the stories and even comedy, make these movies a notch above the others.
Ying xiong (2002)
If Lethal Weapon 4 introduced Jet Li to western audiences, then Hero made him stand out from the crowd. In spite of being a Chinese production, Hero was very well received in America and Europe, becoming the 3rd highest grossing foreign film to date in the United States.
The story is set in in ancient China, before the reign of the first emperor, where warring factions throughout the Six Kingdoms plot to assassinate the most powerful ruler, Qin. When a nameless warrior (Jet Li) defeats the three assassins who sought to murder Qin, he is summoned to the palace to tell of his surprising victories. As the nameless hero speaks of his feats, we are shown through Flashbacks his journey, the intriguing people he meets along the way and his encounters with the assassins.
In this movie, warriors fly through the air, dance across the water, and have imaginary kung fu fights. However, Hero wouldn't have the same feel without these elements, as it all fits perfectly with the artistic nature and fantastic scenarios of the narrative. It's just incredible how everything is so well done. Every shot is beautiful, every scene memorable and every fight mesmerizing. Jet Li is not the only star of the movie, though- he is but one of the incredible cast of great names: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang and Donnie Yen. All are fantastic and recognizable by many fans of martial arts movies.
Hero is a work of art, that delivers a strong message through impressive cinematography. A movie that cannot please everyone due to its unrealism, but that will stun and mesmerize those who like this particular style of martial arts movies.
Once Upon a Time in China
Wong Fei Hung (1991)
Once Upon a Time in China by Hark Tsui was the movie made Jet Li a Hong Kong action star! This movie showed a younger Jet Li in his prime, making him the main character of an epic martial arts festival about the legendary Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hong (1847-1924).
The movie follows Jet Li as Wong Fei Hung as he welcomes back his aunt, who arrives from America, now completely westernised. This is a tough time for China, when the overwhelming western cultures slowly take over Chinese culture and its traditional values. As Wong protects his aunt, he and his martial arts school will see themselves involved in conflicts with foreign and local government.
When I said that Once Upon a Time in China is a martial arts festival, I meant it! The plot develops nicely with constant fights and comedy in-between, for a much entertaining and amusing film. Nevertheless, these aspects never overshadow the story, and the direction the movie takes leads it into one epic martial arts festival, but also insightful view of a problematic China.
Once Upon a Time in China is considered by many fans Jet Li and Hark Tsui's best works to date. Of course this is debatable, with so many great movies released from both actor and director so far. Still, this movie stands out amongst the many, terrible, bad, decent and great martial arts movies out there, and is a complete must for Jet Li fanatics!
Once Upon a Time in China II
Wong Fei Hung II - Nam yi dong ji keung (1992)
Once Upon a Time in China is actually a series of movies, being six in total, and its spin-offs. These movies ended up becoming very popular, and while not all of them have the same quality of the first one, Hark Tsui and Jet Li's trilogy, ranging from 1991 to 1993, can be considered the essential from the Wong Fei Hung series.
This time, Wong Fei Hung faces The White Lotus society, a fanatical cult seeking to drive the Europeans out of China through violence, even attacking Chinese who follow Western ways. Wong will once again use his martial arts skills to defend his loved ones and those in his care.
This second installment is as good as the first movie! This movie has even more eye candy and the acting feels a bit more serious than the previous one. Not to mention that this time around, Wong will have a fearsome enemy as skilled as he is, masterfully played by Donnie Yen, another genius of kung fu and a personal favorite action star of mine.
The wire works in this movie are very good, but what I like the most is the skills of the actors and fighters involved, more than the tricks and stunts. The direction is great once again, and this movie gives you more of everything that was great in the original, kung fu on a great level!
Tai ji: Zhang San Feng (1993)
As I've said before, I'm not the greatest fan of wire works in my kung fu movies, but as the fan of Jet Li I am, I had to watch all of his greats, and I'm glad I picked up Tai-Chi Master.
The story of Tai-Chi Master, also known as Twin Warriors, is pretty basic. Jet Li plays a martial arts student who grows up together with his friend in a Shaolin temple. During one friendly competition, things get out of hand and a student almost dies. The two friends are expelled, and travel China in search of a purpose.
If you want to see a Jet Li in his prime and best physical from, I can't recommend Tai-Chi Master enough! It was launched shortly after his epic trilogy of the legend of Wong Fei Hung, and is a similar kung fu movie in which you can find plenty of kung fu fights and slapstick comedy! Yet, this movie differs from the former, as it offers a more fantastical setting and bigger conflicts of epic proportions.
While not being a contender for best writing ever, the story in Tai-Chi Master is actually pretty engaging for a martial arts movies. You watch as these two friends, who grew up together, go their separate ways while acquiring different values and ambitions, eventually leading them to one tragic conflict. For what it is worth, this movie is pretty good!
Fong Sai Yuk (1993)
After playing the hero Wong Fei Hung and before impersonating the legend Huo Yuan Jia, Jet Li gave us a role of another Chinese folk hero, Fong Sai Yuk.
The movie tells the story of Canton kung fu practitioner Fong Sai-Yuk, who falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a rich merchant, recently moved to Canton. Her father, in an attempt to gain influence in the region and improve his business, offers his daughter in marriage to the winner of a kung-fu contest. Meanwhile, secret societies, romantic misunderstandings and dark plots will have their place in the story!
The Legend doesn't offer anything new from the previous movies mentioned in this list, but at the same time, it offers everything that made them interesting and entertaining! Jet Li is at his best form, the kung fu fights are elaborated to perfection and the comedy-relief is well placed and is actually funny! There is a sequel to The Legend (which I have not watched) that I've heard is also pretty good.
The early 90s were a very good time for Jet Li and his fans. It catapulted him to stardom with the Wong Fei Hung series, and gave us movies like Swordsman II, The Legend I & II, Tai-Chi Master, Fist of Legend among other decent movies. I don't think there is a better selection for fans of Jet Li to explore, other than these Hong Kong gems, worthy of any action collection!
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And with these I end my Top 10 Jet Li movies, a list that gave me fun and needed some research while creating. The man is a legend for action and martial arts enthusiasts, and his dynamic style, impressive skills and overall ability for great choreographies make him an actor of choice when going for some of that entertainment we seek in our escapist movie sessions!
Check out my Top 10 classic Jackie Chan movies as well, if you liked this article!