Taking a Fast-Track Career in Stride

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four years ago, Jet Li decided he was done with movies and martial arts. The thoughtful, energetic native of Beijing had just turned 34 and was feeling increasingly burned out and beaten up after a long run as a superstar of Hong Kong cinema and as a master of the modern form of kung fu known as wushu.

"I started to feel very tired--physically and creatively," he says. "I had trained and worked since I was 8 years old. I wanted to change my life and focus on the next level." Li planned to retire and devote himself full time to the study of Buddhism. He envisioned a quiet life of study, chanting and meditation.

Fast forward to a recent sunny afternoon at a posh hotel in Beverly Hills, where Li is fielding questions from a phalanx of eager entertainment reporters. Dressed in a snug silk T-shirt and black slacks, he's the centerpiece of a 20th Century Fox junket to promote his first English-language star vehicle, a gritty and graphic $25-million punch-up called "Kiss of the Dragon." He's also recently wrapped a sci-fi fantasy and produced a television pilot with Mel Gibson.

And when this promotional whirlwind is over, Li will head back to mainland China to begin work on a period adventure with director James Wong. So much for the quiet life of contemplation. Li says he was convinced not to retire by an unlikely person: a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism named Lo Kunsang Rinpoche. "He said, 'You can't quit. You have a larger responsibility to continue to do your job.' I asked him what is that responsibility? He told me he didn't know. I had to figure it out myself."

And in a twist of fortunes that Li himself cannot quite explain, his career took off almost immediately after his encounter with the monk. With the Hong Kong film industry falling apart under the pressure of rampant corruption and the impending takeover of the colony by the People's Republic of China, Li got a call from an agent at International Creative Management asking if he would consider a role as a mob boss in "Lethal Weapon 4."

Soon Li left Hong Kong for Los Angeles, where he spent four hours a day with a language tutor and began developing projects of his own. After the surprise box-office hit "Romeo Must Die," which paired Li with rapper DMX in a story of a Chinese cop transplanted to Oakland, Li was suddenly a hot commodity--so much so that he felt secure turning down offers from Oliver Stone to appear in "The Art of War" and from the Wachowski brothers to appear in the next two "Matrix" sequels.

Somewhere along the way, Li also arrived at the spiritual answer he was seeking. That message is spelled out on his official Web site, http://www.jetli.com, where fans expecting to learn about his famous spinning kicks or favorite leading ladies may be surprised to find Li's musings on the nature of karma and Taoist philosophy. Visitors are greeted by a swirling lotus, which unfurls into Li's reflections on why he sticks with a career distinguished by "grueling physical work and constant risk of injury."

It's not money or celebrity, he insists: "I have made enough money to take care of my family for a long time. And fame, as we all know, is fleeting." So why not give it up? "Last year, I finally figured it out," he wrote. "I had a responsibility to help introduce Buddhism to the West--in nontraditional ways and through nontraditional media."

But don't expect much in the way of spiritual teaching in "Kiss of the Dragon," a rough piece of business that casts Li as a government agent battling a corrupt police captain on the mean streets of Paris. Written in three weeks, shot in six and produced by a new European company headed by French filmmaker Luc Besson, the film is a showpiece for the sort of bare-knuckle, unadorned combat Li says has been missing from the current wave of American martial arts movies. From the start, Li says he wanted to avoid the wire work and digital adornments that have distinguished successes like "Charlie's Angels" and "The Matrix."

"After 'The Matrix,' everybody do action movie with people fighting while flying around," he says. "Suddenly everyone can fight. Man can do, girl can do, little boy can do, even cartoon can do the same thing. In this movie, everyone really can do."

That's the essential appeal of Li to American audiences, says his manager and "Kiss of the Dragon" co-producer Steven Chasman. "People can identify with a guy who is well under 6 feet tall and 160 pounds--they can root for him," he says. "This is a guy who can do something with his hands without laser guns or nuclear weapons."

And unlike Jackie Chan, who is known for his comic pratfalls and elaborate stunts, Li has fashioned a persona that's sexy and potent. While Chan is constantly scuttling away from danger, mugging for the camera as he blocks the attacks of enemies, Li walks solemnly into even the most dangerous trap, dispatching all comers with economic flourish. If Chan is the exuberant jokester of Hong Kong imports, Li is the ace fighter, sleek and dangerous.

Those skills are on full display in "Dragon," which pits Li against the entire French police force after he is framed for the murder of a Chinese spy. Holed up in a storefront in the city's red-light district, he befriends a strung-out American played by Bridget Fonda, who has been forced into prostitution by a police official, played by reptilian bad guy Tcheky Karyo.

Light on humor and heavy on the bloody neo-noir Besson perfected in "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional," the movie serves up thugs aplenty for Li to flatten, impale and otherwise pound.

The level of violence is such that after seeing the final cut of the movie a few weeks ago, Li felt compelled to make an unusual pre-release announcement. The morning after the screening, Li posted a notice on his Web site warning parents of small children about the movie's "very realistic, hard-core, action-packed fight sequences."

"I'm very proud of the final result and hope that my fans enjoy the movie," he wrote. "However, this is a movie that I do not feel is appropriate for children." Li says he decided to post the notice without consulting with his American partners at 20th Century Fox after reading an e-mail from a fan who said he was looking forward to taking his children to "Dragon."

"I am a parent too," says Li, who turned down a starring role in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to be closer to his family around the time of the birth of his now 14-month-old daughter, Jane. "Sometime we are walking in the mall and I see kids and they see me and say, 'Hi, Jet Li! Kick! Kick!' They do some moves, they talk to me, and I play with them. And they are only 3 or 5 years old! These kids see my movies--and I know I need to mention to their parents and say, this is an R-rated movie, this is for adults. That is my whole point."

Li advises parents to wait until November for a more family-friendly release called "The One," in which Li faces himself in several dimensions. It's hard to imagine many other action stars promoting another movie in the days before the opening of his first star vehicle, but Li says after 25 movies in Hong Kong and three in America, he's learned to take a sage, long-term view.

"In Buddhism, nothing is permanent," he says, squinting into a courtyard garden. "This flower is very beautiful now, but a few months later, no flower. Now martial arts movie is popular all over the world, but how long? You don't know. One year, two years, maybe gone. You hope your movie becomes successful, but all you can do is your best and keep your responsibility to yourself."

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