Imagine Jet Li in a movie where he's not kicking butt. Difficult, isn't it?
Li's portrayal of a man battling for his humanity after he's trained to be an attack dog in "Unleashed" arguably transcends the martial arts roles that have made him famous. But he is not a cinematic chameleon like co-stars Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins, who are known for the variety of roles they have played in their respective long careers.
Li's U.S. film career has been defined by his martial arts expertise. Whether as a villain in "Lethal Weapon 4" or as a heroic foreign-born crime fighter in movies such as "Kiss of the Dragon," and "Cradle 2 The Grave," Li's calling card in Hollywood has always been his spectacular fight scenes. Like Jackie Chan and others, he has followed the path paved by Bruce Lee, who transformed the image of the Asian male in U.S. cinema.
But Lee's legacy has arguably closed as many doors in Hollywood as it has kicked open.
"Before Lee's time, Asian men had been largely depicted as emasculated and childlike -- coolies, domestics, etc. -- in American popular culture," said Hye Seung Chung, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. "Lee proved that the image of the Asian man can be tough, strong and sexy. However, the Bruce Lee craze of the 1970s created a new stereotype of the Asian man: namely, the martial artist, which still permeates in Hollywood cinema."
Various doors were closed to Asians in Hollywood before Lee achieved fame.
Before Lee debuted in 1966 as the faithful sidekick Kato in the TV series "The Green Hornet" and later reached legendary superstardom in kung fu classics like "Fists of Fury" and "Enter the Dragon," Asian men were largely portrayed in Hollywood as docile servants, unskilled laborers or evil geniuses patterned after the Dr. Fu-Manchu character in early 20th-century Sax Rohmer novels. Most were disciplined, even the nerds and laborers.
Lee made Asian men lethal, graceful and cool. But Hollywood's tendency to stereotype and unwillingness to go beyond proven formulas of success turned Lee's legacy into both a blessing and a curse.
"It depends on what you mean by curse," said L.S. Kim, assistant professor of film and digital media at University of California, Santa Cruz. "Lee changed the way Asian males were portrayed in Hollywood. He represented a powerful figure, he kind of presented idealized strength and masculinity. But he couldn't help the racism that was in Hollywood, that studios began to typecast people. What you see on the screen largely depends on the people who write the script, on the producers who greenlight the film."
With the blockbuster success of "Enter the Dragon," in 1973, Lee turned Asian men into action heroes on the big screen. But for all the machismo gained through the Lee mystique, Asian actors still have remained largely emasculated in Hollywood.
They are rarely considered romantic leading men. Lee's characters were too busy fighting off villains to fall in love. Some romantic chemistry was suggested between Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt in "The Tuxedo" and Chan and Roselyn Sanchez in "Rush Hour 2," but moviegoers never saw them share an on-screen kiss. Similar circumstances surrounded Jet Li in his roles opposite Aaliyah and Bridget Fonda in "Romeo Must Die" and "Kiss of the Dragon," respectively.