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Li Lianjie (born April 26, 1963), better known by his stage name Jet Li, is a Chinese martial artist, actor, Wushu champion, and international film star. After three years of intensive training with Wu Bin , Li won his first national championship for the Beijing Wushu Team. After retiring at age 17, he went on to win great acclaim in China as an actor making his debut with the film Shaolin Temple (1982). He went on to star in many critically acclaimed martial arts epic films, most notably the Once Upon a Time in China series, in which he portrayed folk hero Wong Fei Hung. His first role in a Hollywood film was as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), but his first Hollywood film leading role was in Romeo Must Die (2000). He has gone on to star in many Hollywood action films, most recently starring beside Jackie Chan in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), and as the titular villain in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) opposite Brendan Fraser.
The fame gained by his sports winnings led to a career as a martial arts film star, beginning in mainland China and then continuing into Hong Kong. Li acquired his screen name in 1982 in the Philippines when a publicity company thought his real name was too hard to pronounce. They likened his career to an aircraft, which likewise “takes-off” as quickly, so they placed the name Jet Li on the movie posters. Soon everybody was calling him by this new name, which was also based on the nickname, “Jet,” given to him as a young student, due to his speed and grace when training with the Beijing Wushu team. He made his debut with the 1982 film Shaolin Temple. Some of his more famous Chinese films include:
Li starred in the 1995 film, Shu dan long wei, known in English as “Courage of a Mouse and Power of a Dragon”. The film, known in the US as either High Risk or Meltdown, portrays Jet Li as a cop who becomes disillusioned after his wife is murdered by crime lords. Along the way, he pairs up with a wacky sell-out actor, Frankie (played by Jacky Cheung), and proceeds to engage in a series of violent battles in a high-rise building. The setting is similar to that of Die Hard (which similarly, is known in China as Hu Dan Long Wei, or “Courage of a tiger and power of a dragon”). This movie is notable in that director Wong Jing had such a terrible experience working with Jackie Chan in Jing’s previous film City Hunter that he chose to make Cheung’s character a biting satire of Chan. Jet Li would later publicly apologize to Chan for taking part in it.
In 1998, he made his American film debut in Lethal Weapon 4 which also marked the first time he had ever played a villain in a film. He agreed to do Lethal Weapon 4 after the producer Joel Silver promised to give him the leading role in his next film, Romeo Must Die (2000) which was a box office hit launching his career as a leading man in Hollywood.
Li turned down Chow Yun-Fat’s role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) because he promised his wife that he would not make any films during her pregnancy. He also turned down the role of Seraph in The Matrix trilogy, based on his belief that the role was not one which required his skills and that the films were iconic and stunning enough without adding his name to the cast list.