Now that big American movies like Charlie's Angels and The Matrix have adopted gravity-defying martial arts stunts, what's a serious Hong Kong action star to do?
Go back to the basics. For his next film, wushu champion Jet Li — who broke out with his first American starring role in last year's Romeo Must Die — collaborated with French action auteur Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). Li promises that the movie, Kiss of the Dragon, will be "hard-core," with no wire cables and no computer-enhanced fight scenes. It'll be "just fighting on the ground, in the streets," Li says.
He doesn't have a film in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, so Li came to promote his two upcoming movies, the aforementioned Dragon, which is due in July, and Thanksgiving's $75 million sci-fi thriller The One.
Back to Basics With Besson
Although Romeo was a hit and helped cement Li's action-hero status in Hollywood, he's now reassessing its value. "My older audience, the ones who knew me from before, they don't like it," Li learned from chatting with fans on his Web site. "They think the story is no good and [there isn't] enough fighting, and the fighting isn't as good as my Hong Kong movies. But the new audience who knows me only from Lethal Weapon 4," he noted, "they like it."
Besson, the man behind Euro action classics La Femme Nikita and The Professional, co-wrote the screenplay of Kiss of the Dragon, and he and Li produced the picture, which was filmed completely in Paris.
"Luc and I decided to focus on the drama and the character," says Li, who's dismissive of actors who are martial arts newbies and "can train three weeks and look good [with wires]. Everyone [is using] the cables and flying around now," Li laughed. For his film, he says, "We find 50 fighters in Europe who know kung fu. People who have been training for years."
Li, whose injury rate is lower than Jackie Chan's, can still boast that he's had "seven big pieces broken," by which he means bones. On Kiss of the Dragon, he wasn't seriously injured, but he might have been since, like Chan, he doesn't use a stunt double.
Bridget Fonda, who starred in the widely criticized American version of Besson's La Femme Nikita, agreed to co-star in Kiss for one reason. "Jet Li is poetry in motion," she said. "And this is from somebody who grew up on Bruce Lee. I have an appreciation for kicking butt."