I love Jet Li. I really do. I think he’s the best martial arts actor since Bruce Lee in terms of martial arts ability, and he’s also one of the best actors in the martial arts genre (which Bruce Lee wasn’t, although luckily he didn’t really have to play any complex roles).
But I like more about him than his sweet moves and hardcoreness. There’s something else that Jet Li does which I find highly admirable. What is it, you ask? It’s that Jet Li promotes cultural openmindedness. Let’s look at two movies of his that I just watched:
1) Fist of Power. This was essentially a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. The plot is simple: Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee; Jet Li) is a martial artist and he returns to his school to find that his master has been poisoned and the competing Japanese martial arts school is harassing his school. Bruce Lee’s movie was very pro-China and anti-Japanese, black and white. Jet Li’s version has the same plot, but it’s much more open-minded.
First, look at what happens to Chen Zhen. He’s studying in Japan, and he has a Japanese girlfriend (that he wants to marry). After the master dies and he returns to China, his girlfriend comes eventually, and his own school refuses to let her live with them and demands that he choose between his school and his lover. And he chooses her. (Note: in Bruce Lee’s version, not only is his girlfriend Chinese, but he chooses to defend the honor of his school despite her objections [she knows he'll die].) Then, the girlfriend recognizes how important the issue of his school is to him so she returns to Japan to wait for him.
Next, look at the general attitudes of the minor characters. In Bruce Lee’s film, the Japanese are clearly the aggressors and the Chinese are oppressed. There’s no question of Chinese blind hatred of the Japanese possibly being wrong, and there’s no question that any Japanese might not be so evil. But in Jet Li’s film, he shows that the Chinese wouldn’t accept any Japanese — they strongly objected to Chen Zhen’s wanting to marry a Japanese girl (even though the new master of their school was marrying a prostitute). Some of the people in the school were willing to accept her but most of them were not. And Chen Zhen couldn’t get a room for him and her in a Chinese hotel either, they wouldn’t allow a Japanese to stay there.
On the other side, most of the Japanese were what you expect: cruel oppressors. But there are exceptions. The uncle of Chen Zhen’s lover, a Japanese martial arts master, likes Chen Zhen and tries to help him. The Japanese ambassador in Shanghai was horrified by all of the violence and repeatedly intervened to stop Japanese from hurting Chinese. (This doesn’t mean that he didn’t think Japan should control China, but he didn’t want violence at least.) And the master of the Japanese martial arts school that was in conflict with Chen Zhen’s school wasn’t bad either. He was more of an “old-fashioned” villain. He was a complete ass, but he was at least honorable. When Chen Zhen challenged him, he told his school that there should be no revenge if he died. And when he found out that the reason he won his fight with Chen Zhen’s master was that the master had been poisoned, he was very upset: he would have preferred to lose a fair fight than to win dishonorably.
So while Jet Li’s version of the film doesn’t downplay the badness of the situation with the Japanese at that time, it is much deeper and has many more complex characters than Bruce Lee’s version. In all, I think it might be the best martial arts movie I’ve ever seen. It has a classic and simple plot, but still manages to have interesting characters; the acting isn’t terrible; the martial arts is amazing.
2) The One. I have much less to say about this movie. The only thing I wanted to point out was that in this movie, Jet Li’s wife is a white woman. And she talks to him in Chinese a couple of times. At one point he speaks about her in a way very reminiscent of Eastern philosophy. So again in his movie he has characters crossing cultural boundaries (and being happy as a result). Oh, also, when the multiple universe thing is being explained to him, he is told that in other universes the guy who is him is sometimes married to a different woman, or to a man. And in his universe he’s a policeman but in another he is a criminal. In a subtle way this suggests that everyone is capable of a lot of very different things. But maybe I’m reading too much into it (after all, Jet Li’s character reacts negatively when Statham says he was gay in an alternate universe).
I also watched War recently. In that one Jet Li is the villain, and he’s very secretive also, so there’s little to say about his character. But it’s an awesome movie too. (More of a Western-style shoot-em-up action than a martial arts action movie, although Jet Li gets in a cool sword fight near the end and he has some other sweet moves interspersed throughout the movie.)
In conclusion, Jet Li is awesome.