This time it’s personal

International action star Jet Li has been doing his own stunts for more than two decades, and, now 43, Li says his body has the wear to show it.

"Of course," Li says. "If somebody tells you, 'I'm 42 and better than when I was 20,' that's a lie. Every action actor has a lot of injuries, and they always bother you."

Fortunately for his aches and pains, Li's latest film, "Fearless" -- for which he spent 60 days of its 90-day shoot filming action sequences -- is his last martial arts epic. But it's not because he's too old to continue performing his own acrobatic stunts, which he intends to do in future action flicks. Rather, Li says it's because "everything I want to share about martial arts from the physical to the philosophy is in this film."

In the movie, Li stars as real-life Chinese master Huo Yuanjia, who overcame personal tragedy and his own winner-take-all mentality to found the Jingwu Sports Federation and represent China in a competition against four of the world's best fighters. It's a film that promotes the principles of discipline and self-control inherent in wushu (the general Chinese-language term for martial arts), and Li says he was glad to play a more flawed hero than the usual protagonist in Chinese action movies.

"[Those heroes] don't make a mistake. They're just special," he says. "They treat family special, they treat neighbors special, and they do amazing, unimaginable things to solve the problem. I make this movie more personal, more of a real person. He wants to be the number one in the world or in China, but he's a human and he will make a mistake."

The film is personal to Li because he has been studying wushu since he was 8, eventually winning the title of All-Around National Wushu Champion of China five times. Though he retired from the sport after a knee injury and then began making movies, Li's mental and physical training has stuck with him.

"We're like students. We never graduate," he says. "Usually we find the enemy outside our body. But the true meaning is you're the enemy yourself. You need to fight yourself every day."

But most of Li's career, particularly in '80s Hong Kong films, has been spent fighting an onslaught of onscreen warriors and doing stunts that sometimes he was not at all trained for. Like jumping off a bridge into the water, despite not knowing how to swim.

"[The filmmaker said], 'Oh, come on! Every actor can do it. Why can't you do it?'" Li says. "They never treat an actor like an actor; they just treat you like a stuntman. They want to show you can do everything."

Li always rose to the challenge, but aging has taken some of the fun out of the rigorous demands of being an action star.

"A teenager or 20-year-old will enjoy it because he will do everything the other people cannot do," Li says. "Now it's just part of the job."

But that doesn't mean he's slowing down. He will continue to do non-martial arts action movies, playing an assassin in the upcoming "Rogue." (In April he will also start shooting an American action movie with Jackie Chan in China.) Li says action movies like "Rogue" have too many different fighting styles to qualify as martial arts.

"This punch belongs to Japan, this kick is an American kick, this elbow is Korean; its just a human, two-arm, two-leg beat up each other on the street," he says. "How can we say it's martial arts? That's a street fight."

Li's fans know that he is a martial arts master, and they continually ask him to do a move for them if they spot him on the street. But that isn't the wushu way, and Li must respectfully decline.

"I will smile and say sorry," he says. "Better go to the theater and see the movies."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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