EXTRA: The Cult of Jet Li

A few years back, Jet Li’s ass-kicking dexterity was known only to a select few — namely, geeky Far East cinephiles immersed in a world of fanzines and fringe video stores. And in two major U.S. flicks’ time, the Chinese martial artist turned movie star has joined the ranks of other imported Hong Kong cinematic icons — such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat — in successfully making the crossover from the niche market of Asian cinema to the cash cow of Hollywood.

And the bucks (plus the roles) don’t stop there. Daily Variety reported today that the actor has just signed with Warner Bros. to co-produce and star in another action flick titled “The First King.” Based on Li’s own idea, the film is said to be an action-adventure that’s inspired by the first monarch of China who comes back to life in modern times. And word has it that Li’s also in talks to co-star in the adaptation of “The Green Hornet” and in both of “The Matrix” sequels.

Certainly, the success of “Lethal Weapon 4” and “Romeo Must Die” and the bombardment of offers easily attest to Jet Li’s career longevity in Hollywood. But the fact of the matter is, the 37-year-old actor’s been around a helluva lot longer than the recent exposure explosion would have people think.

Li made more than 25 films (all action-oriented) before landing the against-type role of the villain in 1998’s “Lethal Weapon 4.” Like many actors, Li started out doing something else — in his case, Li was a four-time Chinese Men’s All-Around National Wushu Champion in China (vocabulary lesson: “Wushu” means “martial arts” in Mandarin) in the mid-70s. He segued into martial-arts flicks in Hong Kong and China with “Shaolin Temple,” an old-school kung fu period piece in 1980.

During his prolific career, Li has worked with Hong Kong new wave director Tsui Hark, chubby martial-arts star Sammo Hung (TV’s “Martial Law”) and directed his own film (1986’s “Born to Defense”).

But what’s more, he’s got what every supercool subculture icon’s got: a massive cult following and an interminable list of films to prove it (see filmography below).

The origin of the Jet Li cult phenomenon is unclear, but it can be traced to the fervor of avid Hong Kong cinema fans and in-the-know Asian expatriates.

“[The Jet Li cult following began with] the same people who’re into Hong Kong films — just like Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie Chan. And it spreads with words of mouth. Of course, our magazine helps a lot also,” Eric Nakamura, publisher and co-editor of Asian pop culture mag Giant Robot, told Hollywood.com.

And what is Li’s specific appeal? The bona-fide kung fu and the physics-defying moves, what else?

“I think [his appeal] is just that he’s a martial artist. He looks really good, and he’s more serious [than someone such as] Jackie Chan. Jet is a lot fresher,” said Nakamura.

In even more flowery prose, another longtime Jet Li fan agrees.

“I don’t think anyone (whether interested in martial arts or not) could sit through one of Jets films and not appreciate his outstanding form, speed and precision. Jet moves with the fluidity and grace of a true martial-arts expert,” wrote the co-creator of the online Jet Li fansite The Ultimate Jet Li Website (www.jet-li.co.uk).

Here is Li’s complete filmography, courtesy of the Jet Li HQ Web bsite (http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Cinema/1320/film.html ):

Shaolin Temple (1982) Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin (1984) Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986) Marvelous Kung Fu of Shaolin (aka Abbot Hai Teng of Shaolin) (1986) Born to Defence (1986) Dragons of the Orient (1988) Dragon Fight (1988) The Master (1989) Once Upon a Time in China (1990) Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1991) Once Upon a Time in China 3 (1992) Swordsman 2 (1992) Fong Sai Yuk (1993) Fong Sai Yuk 2 (1993) Last Hero in China (1993) Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) Tai Chi Master (1993) Shaolin Kung Fu (1994) New Legend of Shaolin (1994) Bodyguard from Beijing (1994) Fist of Legend (1994) My Father is a Hero (1995) High Risk (1995) Dr Wai and the Scripture without Words (1996) Black Mask (1996) Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997) The Hitman (1997) Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) Romeo Must Die (2000)