Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jet Li Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jet Li Edition

Fearless (retrospective) « Grading Fight Scenes
*Last Updated 6/19/2022

Jet Li is a martial arts icon and, in my humble opinion, has produced far more high-quality action set pieces than any of his Expendables cast mates. Yes, Li has more high quality action than Stallone or Statham (combined TBH). Becoming a star in the wake of Jackie Chan, Jet Li separated himself from other kung fu stars by featuring a unique quickness, stylish acrobatics mixed with traditional styles, strong weapons work, and the ability to do acrobatic wire work all within a compact underdog stature. Li became a true star through his Once Upon a Time in China series that, unique for the genre, featured high production values, traditional martial arts, and lots of wide shots where he can do big quick sweeping moves to large crowds of people. His small stature and quick movement contrasts well against large forces of enemies. Jet's run of martial arts films from 1991 to 1994's kung fu masterpiece Fist of Legend is prolific (13 films in 4 years!) and produced most of his best sequences and some of the best sequences of all-time. Check out sequence #1 and #2 to see just how versatile, acrobatic, and quick Li was in this period.

After this phase of his career, Li began to focus on American crossovers (again in the wake of Jackie Chan). Like Chan, Li's international work didn't bring out the best in him. It wasn't until he teamed with Luc Besson that he found an international partner that was able to get memorable stuff. Check out Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed for his best international work. In 2006, he essentially retired from the martial arts epic with strong work in Fearless. If you are interested in action, especially martial arts action, copy this list and spend some glorious time researching on Youtube. In case you are wondering, here are the top five Jet Li films I would recommend:

5. Tai Chi Master (1993)
4. Kiss of the Dragon (2001) or Unleashed: Directors Cut (2005)
3. The Legend (1993)
2. Fearless: Directors Cut (2006)
1. Fist of Legend (1994)
 

JET LI ACTION SEQUENCES ABOVE 'B' RATED & RANKED

GRADE: B
Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.

46. “Airport Finale: Tanks, Nukes, & Fights” -Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)
- Commentary: This is a silly but satisfying finale sequence. In many ways it feels like a proto-Fast and the Furious finale with DMX here playing the head of the family (he's trying to rescue his girl) while bringing together a diverse crew with different skills and roles. Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson are there for comedic relief - they bring a tank to the sequence and provide some laughs and the biggest visual spectacle when they take down a helicopter. Gabrielle Union holds her own in a fight against Kelly Hu, DMX takes on a main henchmen to retrieve his girl, and Jet Li plays a Taiwanese policeman who takes out the main viallin Ling. The action is alright, but all the threads have something to add. Jet's finale showdown looks nice in the fire and rain and is serviceable but doesn't really provide any kind of memorable fight beats. Still, as a small glimpse into the cinematic future of what the Fast and Furious series would become - this finale is a nice little surprise.

45. “Wong Fei Hung Breaks Up a Large Sword Fight in the Street” -Once Upon a Time in China III (1993)
- Commentary: A simple sequence executed really well. There's a large sword fight between rival schools happening on the street and Wong Fei-Hung looks to break it up. He does this by stripping off his outer coat and using it to disarm and disrupt the fights with quick and well-placed strikes or disarming moves. It's all done with clear and cool-looking beats. A great example of the variety of high quality fights you get in Jet Li's canon.

44. “Finale: Sewer Fight with Commander Kuk” -Black Mask (1996)
- Commentary:

43. “Jet Li vs. All the Cage Fighters” -Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)
- Commentary: While trying to find a particular criminal, Jet Li is forced to enter an underground fight against his will. The fight begins with him trying not to engage and against one other fighter he is able to evade pretty well. Eventually, the group sends in every available fighter and we now get a fully engaged Jet Li for the first time in the film. This is one of those one guy vs many where it really allows Jet to show off a lot of great stiff moves as he takes down guys who come at him one by one - each with a nice little stunt to show off just how brutal some of Jet's moves area. Eventually they knock down one of the fences onto the crowd and it becomes a kind of trampoline for a few additional acrobatic beats. All in all, a rarity in Jet's American films - a decent sequence that essentially allows Jet to be Jet without gimmicks. 

42. “Tall Grass Fight: Li & Buddhis Buddies vs. General's Thugs” -Shaolin Temple (1982)
- Commentary: It isn't until about the hour mark that I think we get a really good fight out of this film and it's pretty darn good. Jet Li is a wanted man by a Chinese general a group of his thugs have spotted him. Jet Li holds off the thugs for a while but eventually Li's Buddhist pals show up and we get a wonderful demonstration from several great Wushu stars of their abilities. There are like four to five fantastic actors here (including Jet) that get extended time to show their stuff. The only downfall for me is that this is clearly meant to be a demonstration sequence rather than something with genuine stakes and plot advancement. It does rob the scene of something important. Still, as a showcase of acrobatic skill with different weapons, it's quite a nice scene.

41. “Opening: Jet Li with Spear vs. Claw Man” -Legend of the Red Dragon (1993)
- Commentary: Getting started right away, the government has killed Jet Li's family. He finds his son in hiding and one man who survived. The survivor turns out to be a government traitor with claws as his main weapon and an opening fight begins. The quality of fighting is in that excellent early 90's vein where they found just the right balance between technical fighting mixed in with a couple of pops of intensity and spectacle. Li busts out his spear and takes out henchmen along with Claw Man. The fight ramps up greatly when claw man attaches a flaming log to his claw and the two tangle around that. The fight is nearly ruined though by Li having to protect a child - which too often is so obviously a doll that causes unintentional humor.

40. "Fight on the Great Wall: Shaolin Assassins vs. Government Soldiers" -Martial Ars of Shaolin (1986)
- Commentary: After a failed assassination attempt on the a Ming official, a few Shaolin assassins (including Jet Li) are attempting to escape pass the great wall. They attempt to pass as sheep herders but their ruse is soon discovered and a fight breaks out. The real Great Wall locations are stunning and the real treat here is a young Jet Li under the choreography of Lau Kar-Leung. Jet takes on large groups of people with a sword here and we are witness to multiple back to back extended beats of 15 or more moves. It's an impressive feat and my guess is that Kar-Leung enjoyed working with someone like Jet who was able to execute his ideas with such technical sharpness.

39. "First Meeting: Wong Fei-Hung vs. Iron Vest Kim" -Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
- Commentary: For most action films not featuring the talents of Jet Li, Tsui Hark, and Yuen Woo-Ping, this would qualify as good enough for the finale fight between the hero and the villain. Instead, this is just their initial foray - and we still get a handful of extended fight beats with intense and well choreographed action. Just look at that clever and inventive two shot beat in the gif above! It's not a full sequence and it doesn't end satisfyingly, but with several moments like the one above - it's still an enjoyable and worthy watch.

38. “Temple Pole Fight Mayhem” -Tai Chi Master (1993)
- Commentary: This is one of those magical realism fights that you just have to accept the physics of. To help you, the creators do their best to present the wire work and object physics as believable as possible through well done insert shots and fluid wires. They do a pretty good job here, but the biggest fruits are just enjoying the stunning the amount of group choreography required to pull this one off. It’s not the best pole sequence I’ve ever seen, that goes to two Lau Kar Leung masterpieces.. When Li and his buddy get on the wrong side of the temple master, the entire temple turns on them in this creative pole fight where one inventive beat after another is thrown at the wall – with the wirework and stunts coming off practical and believable. It's not for everyone, but give in to the silly charm and you'll find yourself enjoying this one.

37. “Assassin Apartment and Elevator Shootout” -Contract Killer/Hitman (1998)
- Commentary: The lights go out and it's clear that assassins are on to Jet Li and his manager. Theirs some decent gunplay and fighting in the apartment with a couple assassins. The sequence gets much better when Li and his manager attempt to escape in an elevator and encounter another machine gun toting assassin. They make their way into the shaft and their is some really clever ideas employed here to get some great gunplay and hand to hand combat in such a confined space. Can't say I've ever seen a shootout this good in an elevator shaft!

36. "Umbrella Fight: Wong Fei-Hung vs. Master Wong" -Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
- Commentary: A short but stellar little sequence where Jet Li takes out a local thug and his gang taking protection money from a restaurant owner. The gimmick here is that Li is barely bothered, he takes out the gang just by using his umbrella. In Li's hand, the umbrella is awesome - he strikes quick with it, changes hands, blocks attacks, uses it to repel boiling water, trip up escaping men, and by the end - float down from the second story. Compare this with Jackie Chan's use of an umbrella in his "Singing in the Rain" fight from Shanghai Knights and you can see more clearly the skills that made Li & Chan famous for different reasons. Jackie is equally inventive, but it's less about using it as a proactive weapon with quick technicality and more about using it reactively, discovering ways to organically and often humorously defend himself. This is a slick and well choreographed sequence that shows Li and Tsui Hark at the peak of their abilities turning a small gimmick idea into a real crowd-pleasing memorable sequence.

35. “Jet Li vs. a Cowboy” -Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997)
34. “Fong Sai Yuk and the Boy Hitter Fight for Honor” -The Legend II (1993)
33. “Attacked During Fireworks by Red Masked People and a Fire Dragon” -The Legend II (1993)
32. “Fight on the River for the Sacred Box with Samurai” -The Legend II (1993)
31. “Apartment Fight: Colin Chou vs. Jet Li” -Bodyguard from Beijing (1994)
30. “Newly Formed Bandit Army Takes on 5,000 Men” -The Warlords (2007)
29. “Underground Pit Fight: Li vs. Group with Weapons” -Unleashed: Director’s Cut (2005)
28. “Assassin Apartment and Elevator Shaft Shootout” -Contract Killer (1998)
27. “Finale: Rooftop Brawl and Li vs. Jerry Trimble” -The Master (1992)
26. “Boat Meeting on the Seine Ends in a Chase to the Subway” -Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
25. “Tradeoff in Glass Restaurant Goes Wrong” -The Enforcer (1995)

24. “Fights at the Troop Encampment: Betrayed by Tian Biao” -Tai Chi Master (1993)
- Commentary: Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and some allies look to ambush Governor Liu at his military camp. It turns out that one of Li's allies betrays them and it turns into a bit of a tragic massacre. Not of course before we got a lot of great fight scenes. Jet, Michelle, and their allies get a lot of "one vs. many" beats here that are pretty incredible. Standing out most is Jet Li's work with a pole as he takes on dozens of guys believably. He is so quick with the stick it's sick! Feel free to roll your eyes at that one. Michelle Yeoh also stands out with the use of a three sectioned staff and later a sword. Lots of nice little standout moments here, but it ultimately ends in tragedy.


23. “Finale: Fight Between Jet and a Navy Captain in a Warehouse” -Born to Defense (1986)
- Commentary:

22. “A "Friendly" Pole Fight: Yen vs. Jet Li” -Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
- Commentary: Donnie Yen plays a villainous commander in the second Once Upon a Time in China film and the first encounter between Yen and Jet Li's Wong Fei-Hung is a sudden and intense pole fight. The fight takes place around a series of vertical poles, think of a 9 square setup but on steroids. Jet Li and Yen display an incredible amount of speed and skill here. Thankfully we are given nice wide shots, with a lot of horizontal dollying to give us a perfect view of each fighters abilities. It's a short sequence overall, but it's so good with a few memorable spots that it really sets you up to anticipate their rematch later in the film. 


GRADE: B+
Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. These sequences are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.

21. “Fight to Name a New Master at Jing Wu Men” -Fist of Legend (1994)
- Commentary: A slow fight to start as Li only plays defense. However, once Li opens up and begins incorporating his new boxing technique, the fight sparkles like few others. There are a couple of beats that match the best sequences in any fight I’ve seen. Still, they are few and far between, but boy are they great.

20. “Jackie vs. Jet” -The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
- Commentary: We never got to see Jackie Chan fight Jet Li in the mid-90’s – when both men were in their primes – instead we got this sequence in the family film Forbidden Kingdom from 2008. Why? I don’t know, maybe the two egos couldn’t handle it until their careers cooled off and they could justify it in some kind of throwaway kids film? Either way, for taking place so much later in their action film careers and being in a family film, this one on one fight scene is actually pretty good. It’s not a career highlight for either man, but it’s certainly not an embarrassment or something they would want to hide. Li gets to play his traditional monk character while Chan plays a variation of his drunken fighter and the two get about five minutes to go back and forth in a lot of different styles. Historic, competent, but not the masterpiece we all wanted.

19. “Mind Fight: Nameless vs. Sky in the Mind” -Hero (2004) Link
- Commentary: There may not be a better setting for a kung fu fight than this one. It's a traditional Chinese looking courtyard with pavilions set up for chess and music. It's not quite raining, but their is enough that the shingles of the roofs drip water at a rate that is zen like. Mixed with the traditional music playing by a nearby blind man and you have an incredible atmosphere! The sequence begins with the assassin Sky, played by Donnie Yen, being confronted by some men to take him in. Their fight sequence is nice, but its more a setup - Yen dispatches them with ease, he never even has to take the cover off of his spear, nor do they even get close to him, despite increasing their numbers over and over. They eventually beg off in disgrace. However, when Jet Li arrives, playing the powerful assassin Nameless, the two are so evenly matched that they play out their fight in their minds first. It's a really cool idea and we get to see those sequences in black and white. There are some strong back and forth beats here, in fact maybe a little too good. They are so satisfying that it makes me mad the fight didn't feature them more and made the ending feel too much of a letdown. I get it though, this wasn't about the fight, it was about the concept and the ideas first and foremost. Still, you have Yen and Li and you clearly had some amazing choreography and the thing ends with  Li just doing a jumping stab maneuver surrounded by some bad water CGI? Talk about putting a ceiling on such a beautiful sequence.

18. “Turning in the King of Killers: John Woo Meets Jet Li Finale” -Contract Killer/Hitman (1998)
- Commentary: In a nice change of pace for Jet Li the finale here plays more like a John Woo gunplay ballet with some Jet Li fighting mixed in and it makes for a nice combination. We even get a "king of killers" good guy assassin (Simon Yam) who wields a shotgun much like Chow Yun Fat did in Hard Boiled. The gunplay is really good here - Yam gets some great moments to shine. The sequence eventually splits into three directions with Jet taking on a laser wielding martial artist, Yam taking on the sword wielding villain, and Eric Tsang (the comic relief) taking on a female Giesha like fighter. After Jet takes his guy out in a nice back and worth, the others strings come together to finalize. This is a fun ending sequence that sees Jet get some of his best work in a contemporary gun/fight setting.

17. "Finale: Li vs Ken Lo & Colin Chou...plus a kid" -The Enforcer (1995)
- Commentary: This fight is a tough one. For 2/3rds of the sequence it is A tier stuff – an extended group fight with police batons, incredible one on one stuff with Ken lo, and some really hard-hitting stunts. Then the kid shows up…and…well…depending on how much you like “clever” double team work with a kid, then I guess your mileage will very. Almost dropped down to a B, but I think the first 2/3rds can’t be forgotten here.

16. “Police Station Finale: Lobby, Dojo, and Twins Single Handedly” -Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
-Commentary: This one had the makings of a an all-timer, but it just moves far too quickly and lacks the killer third phase that the truly great “tri-level” finale’s have. Here Jet Li enters a police precinct takes out the few people in the lobby and then finds himself in a dojo with a couple dozen training fighters. He takes them out quickly in a nice sequence and then finds himself against the two major henchmen of the film – the two blonde twins. This is another very good sequence where he fights them in an office setting. Had the sequence had one more major fight against the main villain or another surprise sub-boss then this could be an A level scene. Otherwise, everything I described takes place in just 6 minutes or so. It needed some room to breathe and just one more great stage to reach its potential.

15. “Escape from the Hotel: Down the Laundry Chute and Out the Laundry Room” -Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
- Commentary: This sequence represents something new for Jet Li – a competent mixture of his martial arts skill with quality action/chase material that doesn’t try to outdo John Woo. This extended sequence feels like a logical action chase through a hotel with shootouts and fights. There a couple clever moments where Li is stuck, like in the laundry chute, and he must outwit his opponents to get past. Then we get his martial arts sprinkled in and in a cool sequence in the laundry room, an extended beat of them. This is great stuff here.


GRADE: A-
These are great action sequences with some minor issue(s) holding them back. They are typically best in their film and potentially best of the year.

14. “Finale: Wong Fei-Hung vs. Commander Donnie Yen” -Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
- Commentary: Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen make good on the incredible promise from their earlier pole fight in this film. The fight between them begins at a kind of bean drying facility with racks and racks of bean trays stacked vertically. To keep Yen's commander distanced Li has a gigantic bamboo pole and wields it from three stories above Yen as Yen tries to get a hold of a key object one of Li’s men has. Eventually, Li and Yen face off on the ground with broken bamboo poles in each hand and with all the expected speed and extended takes you would want. These moments are like gold to me.  The sequence finishes off by moving to an alleyway with Yen turning to a lengthy fabric weapon that’s been twisted into a rope – this weapon manages to be quite the menace. I like how Yen uses this weapon and Li is only really able to survive it with cleverness as Yen breaks his bamboo pole down smaller and smaller until its so small it splinter - allowing Li to get a key cut for the killing blow! The only thing holding this wonderful sequence back in my opinion is the lack of hand to hand fighting that I think everyone would have liked to see with these two in peak form.

13. “Finale: Shaolin Monks Battle on He Sao's Boat” -Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986)
- Commentary: This finale is all about getting revenge on the Ming leader in his big river boat and Jet Li and his Shaolin pal are prepared to do it by stopping the boat at a narrow crossing, boarding it, and beating everyone up. They do just that as well! The river setting here with the mountainous background is gorgeous and Lau Kar-Leung does well to show it off. There's a lot of typical Kar-Leung choreography here with Jet Li really getting some moments to shine. The entire sequence is kicked up a notch when the Ming official gets involved with his sword and we get some amazing work between Jet, the Ming official, and the other Shaolin buddy. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to find 3-4 better sequences in all of fight cinema that do a 2 or 3 on 1 action beat as well as this one. There are just some amazing pops of complicated choreography here guys - seek out this sequence if you can. The end sees the Ming Official almost get away before he is confronted by a Shaolin Official and we get a 1v1 between them until Jet Li shows up and helps put the fight to a close. Great stuff!

12. “Red Flower Society Broken Up by the Emperor's Assassins: Li vs. Zhao Pt. 1” -The Legend (1993)
- Commentary: In this sequence, the intimidating and athletic commander Vincent Zhao breaks up a secret political meeting and seeks to snag a list containing the names of all the subversives in the community. There’s group fighting at first, but the centerpiece fight that breaks out between Li and Zhao would easily be the finale of most other great fight movies – in this one it’s only a warmup. Zhao and Li first fight hand to hand in long extended takes where Li gets tired of having to block Zhao’s relentless attacks. The sequence ends with a prolonged bamboo stick fight over water. The sequence walks the line perfectly between wire-enhancement and practical superhuman feats, to where it always feels like an enhancement to these great fights and a never a believability hindrance.

11. “Wong Fei-Hung vs. The Immortal Kung and the White Lotus Sect” -Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
- Commentary: Interested in seeing Jet Li take on a crazy death cult as the mythical Wong Fei-Hung? Here’s your chance to see an incredible set piece where Li takes on the foreigner hating White Lotus Clan. It begins with Jet pretending to convert only to begin taking them out once its clear the sect is going to kill him. The opening phase here is a battle against large numbers of cult members and there's a nice call back here to Jet using an umbrella to take them out. I like the moment he trashes their idol altar table as well. The next phase begins when the Immortal Kumg shows up with his two hencmen to prop him up in multiple ways. This sequence becomes a test - can Jet Li beat them well enough to convince everyone that they are not really what they say they are. I like Jet's moments with sword work here and there’s also some incredible wire-work and practical stunts involving balancing tables and enough grounded kung-fu moments to satisfy those who enjoy each of those elements. It's an impressive sequence that has a little something for everyone.

10. “Finale: Rescuing his father - Fong Sai Yuk vs. Vincent Zhao Pt. 2” -The Legend (1993) Link
- Commentary: The amount of great work Jet Li put together during this time period is mind-numbing. The finale to The Legend features a quick and brutal fight between Li and Vincent Zhao. The fight moves all over the courtyard and in an especially fun sequence, under the floorboards for an unusually low ceiling the fighters must take advantage of.

9. “Former Brothers Platform Fight Over Michelle Yeoh” -Tai Chi Master (1993)
- Commentary: I want to put this fight into the  'A’ category so badly and drop the minus. For so much of the runtime I am locked into it and keep thinking "this might be one of the best fights ever!" Jet Li and Siu-Ho Chin are at the top of their game here and Yuen Woo-Ping’s choreography takes some incredible "magic realism" ideas and builds them so crisply and delicately. The fight zips along with more inventive ideas per moment than most entire franchises can call their own. Seriously, the fight looks like an anime come alive – with wirework and practical stunts so believable these guys come off as superhuman. Mixed between the wirework stunts are extended swordplay beats that might be overcranked (sped up artificially), but are just jaw-dropping gorgeous. Eventually, the sequence ends up on a wooden tower with Michelle Yeoh strapped to it. As the two men fight all over the tower it eventually crumbles and that’s where the fight loses its way. If you are into wrestling maybe you’ll get the analogy – this fight is like one of those wrestling matches where you just can’t believe what you are seeing, it's one of the best ever, and you are ready for them to take it home and end it in classic fashion but then there’s a countout or a disqualification to sour the ending. That’s what happens here – the sequence just can’t stick the landing and it brings it down quite a bit for me.

8. “Finale: Huo vs. Four Fighters; Boxing, Spears, Fencing and Tanaka” -Fearless: Director’s Cut (2006)
- Commentary: You need to watch this fight in the director’s cut and not the theatrical release. Wisely, they took all of the different fighting types and put them together in the director’s cut, rather than break them apart. Taken as a whole, they are really really impressive back to back. They showcase and demonstrate Jet Li’s spectrum of skills in beautiful choreography and enough self-aware directing to know when to enhance a moment and to know when to get out of the way. The choppiness does hold it back as well as the ending which ends with poisoning rather than a traditional martial art finale.


GRADE: A
Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.

7. “Finale: Re-capturing Danny - Li vs. Lambert” -Unleashed: The Directors Cut (2005) Link
Commentary: This is easily the best work Jet Li did outside of Asian cinema. For some reason he and the combo of Luc Besson/Louis Letterier just clicked together. In this sequence Bob Hoskins is trying to retrieve Jet Li, who he had turned into a rabid dog to do his dirty work. The sequence plays out like a chase throughout an apartment complex with Li first having to take out several groups of henchmen on his way to the sub-boss before taking on the main boss in dramatic style. The group work is nice, but the standout here is Li's fight with Mike Lambert. Their fight begins with weapons and ends up in a bathroom where the close quarters leads to some really quick, brutal, and unique fighting. It's easily the best looking stuff Li did in a contemporary setting. 

6. “Dojo Disaster: Chen Zhen Rampages on Students & the Master” -Fist of Legend (1994) Link
- Commentary: This is Jet Li's version of Bruce Lee's iconic dojo sequence and I think it is better than the original in nearly every way. This sequence was the best one vs. many until Donnie Yen dropped his masterpiece in the original Ip Man. From the second Jet Li walks in with the determined look on his fight, every action beat thereafter makes Jet Li look like a butt-kicking kung fu master that no one can match. The sequence straddles the line between a normal man who is just that good and a superhuman so well that you just buy that Li is that quick, that inventive, and that strong. Li improves on the diversity of move set and our dojo students actually feel like they are attacking rather than waiting their turn for a kick to the face. The Wachowski’s would try and re-make this in their “Burly Brawl” with hundreds of Mr. Anderson’s in Matrix Reloaded, but never got close to duplicating the atmosphere and feel this one has. This one is a pound for pound champion. Would I have liked it to be longer? Maybe, but what we get is so clean and impactful that more length might have been to its detriment.

5. “Blindfolded Teaching: Li vs. Kurata” -Fist of Legend (1994) Link
- Commentary: I just love this fight. I love that we get to see Jet take on the legendary Yasuaki Kurata and that the creatives behind the fight were able to make the fight about more than just choreography (but what choreography we get!). I am so happy that they didn't try and stylize this fight too much (though we get some great inserts here), but was often satisfied with setting a medium wide two shot and just allowing the pace and athleticism be the spectacle. The theme of Fist of Legend is essentially about the Chinese vs. Japanese – not just in life and war – but in culture and martial arts too. Jet Li’s character begins to eschew the traditional Chinese martial arts and adapt other martial arts to help himself win. In this fight he takes on a Japanese legend in Kurata and does so primarily with boxing style adapted into his Chinese style. Kurata begins the fight in traditional style but as Li starts racking up some hits, Kurata adjusts as well, taking on the boxing style. As the fight progresses, Li throws in more styles like muay thai, judo, and MMA like groundwork – with Kurata matching it. Eventually, the two continue the fight blindfolded. At the end, Li says to Kurata, “The objective of matching styles is to beat the opponent.” To which Kurata replies, “Wrong, young man. The best way to beat an opponent is to do it with a gun. The goal of Kung Fu is to maximize one’s energy.” It’s a beautiful moment and teaching that this fight, while still showcasing all the requisite athletic and kinetic awesomeness, embodies.

4. “Can't Touch the Ground: Fong Sai Yuk Fights Soo Ahn on the Crowd's Shoulders” -The Legend (1993) Link
- Commentary: I just can’t believe the creativity on display in this sequence. The setup is quirky – the first to touch the ground and fall off a wooden tower loses (I believe if you can get the woman to hit the ground you can marry her, but I’d need to watch the context again). Jet Li challenges Soo Ahn and what takes place is about 8 minutes of some of the most beautiful, creative, and clever ideas to keep someone from hitting the ground. The two sides kick and punch like normal, but they also knock around the wooden beams of the tower to trip or to stabilize themselves or their opponents. Once they fall off the tower, the watching crowd plays a role as they fight on top of their heads and shoulders. Each fighter has a group willing to help them and by the end they are fighting on the shoulders of just one man! The choreography and wire work is top notch and if you are willing to let the lightness and creativity of this sequence envelope you (not every fight sequence has to be brutal) you just might find it as incredible as I do.
 
3. “Trashing the Restaurant: Master Huo vs. Maser Chin” -Fearless: Director’s Cut (2006) Link
- Commentary: There seems to be a grand tradition in traditional Chinese kung fu films to hold fights in restaurants. This is perhaps the greatest of the tradition. This is the centerpiece fight of the film and embodies the moral lesson the film is making as well. The sword fight between Li and Zhihui Chen at times feels like those traditional restaurant fights with their aerobatics and fluid swordplay – but it doesn’t take long before you get the defining feature of the fight: rage. To emphasize this rage we often get some quick and unexpected jump cuts to highlight the intensity and anger. This fight is about furious rage and the careless destruction of the restaurant with each impassioned swing of the sword manifesting the moral lesson of how our rage destroys not just our enemies, but our surroundings, and ultimately ourselves in the process. I find myself continuing to come back to this fight for its story, emotion, and choreography. It’s not common for those first two things to be found in the better Hong Kong fights. There's only one thing holding this back for me from an A+ all time kinda fight - I just with the finale sequence, when they lose the swords and fight hand to hand had a few more technical beats to show their skill, before it turns into the all-out brawl. I felt like the sword section nailed that balance perfectly, but once they lost the swords I really wanted to see them go at it a bit longer before we get the finishing blow. 

2. “Finale: Wong Fei-Hung's vs Iron Robe Yim in a Ladder Fight” -Once Upon a Time in China (1991) Link
- Commentary: The Once Upon a Time in China series saw Jet Li and director Tsui Hark bring high level production budgets to historical martial arts films. To my mind, Jet Li was at his best in these kinds of traditional martial arts roles. Here he plays the mythical Wong Fe-Hung and the finale sequence ends up in a factory/warehouse with products stacked three and four stories high fighting against a new Martial Arts Club leader Iron Vest (together they had incredible chemistry). To get to all of these products, large ladders are required. This fight ends up having a little bit of everything that makes Li so great – there’s the athleticism and selling wirework so naturally. Li and Iron Robe Yim pull off some really cool stunts with those large ladders – balancing and fighting off of them. This isn’t just one of those gimmick fights though, we get Li and full butt kicking mode with several extended wide shots where and Yim exchange in lengthy back and forths. There’s also some groups of henchmen that have to be dispatched with. There’s so many great fights of Li’s that it is really difficult to put one on top of the other – this one though loses a bit of steam thanks to some intercutting of other events, but if you just take this one on one - it's hard to deny that it might just be his best.


GRADE: A+
An all-time great action sequence. This does not mean it is a technically perfect action sequence, just that it is "perfect" to me. This is one I can watch over and over and it doesn't lose its power.

Jet Li Capsule Reviews - The Chinese Cinema - Medium
1. “Finale Fight: Chen Zhen vs. General Fugita” -Fist of Legend (1994) Link
- Commentary: Li's one on one fight with Billy Chow is one of the all-time great cinematic fights. It clocks in at about 8 minutes long and follows a fight template that I think is superior to most - at least it appeals most to my sensibilities. First, it's a finale fight against a boss that embodies the challenges our lead character is trying to overcome - in this case he's a Japanese general that believes Chinese are inferior people. Second, the fight is lengthy, with multiple distinct phases that build on each other leading to the climactic finish. Third, detailed fight choreography with punctuated moments of spectacle and impact. The choreography in this fight is not only iconic and cinematic, but manages to tell a story of adaptation and perseverance along the way. The adaptation here isn’t just a motif put onto the fight to make it more meaningful, but it’s tied into the theme of the entire film – as the question of Chinese culture vs Japanese culture is the big debate. To my mind, this is about as perfect as a cinematic finale fight can get. 
The film knows to stay wide to medium most of the time and showcase the legit martial arts work of both actors. They work fast, with many shots holding for multiple beats, then as a punctuation the editing gets quicker as we destroy the environment and end with a strong attack – sometimes in slow motion to emphasize the impact. In other words, this is a confident fight that knows what it is doing. It’s a template for cinematic finale fights that you would see others copy like the subway fight in The Matrix (they had the same choreographer). Even when you think it’s over and you’ve gotten your money’s worth – the fight restarts and kicks up a notch with weapons (the only thing I felt the fight lacking a bit) and the coup de grace move to finish everything doesn’t disappoint. I’d say this is Jet Li’s true masterpiece.


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