Jet Li is back onscreen bringing power as the mighty Emperor in “Mulan,” the global star’s first movie in four years.
It’s a welcome return for fans of the martial arts legend, 57, who has starred in the “Expendables” franchise, “Romeo Must Die” and “Lethal Weapon 4.” Li’s last movie was the little-seen 2016 action film “League of Gods.”
Two years later, viral photographs of Li looking frail in Tibet taken by a fan sparked alarm over his health. His management swatted away the reports at the time (“Jet is completely fine,” manager Steven Chasman said) and Li laughed them off to USA TODAY during a March interview.
“I have no problem,” said Li. “Because I’m not making a lot of movies, other people think I’m sick. I just smile, I don’t care. I’m always pretty healthy. But people want to make an excuse, saying, ‘Why doesn’t he make a movie, because he has a problem?’ OK, fine, that’s what you think, I’m still good.”
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Li maintains his low Hollywood profile is due to a change of life priorities. “Life is a movie too,” he says.
In 2004, the action star injured his foot as he protected his daughter from tsunami waves that flooded his Maldives hotel. Profoundly moved by the near-death experience, Li says he has since devoted himself to charity work with his One Foundation, founded in 2007, with the goal to provide counseling to victims of natural disasters and help young people coping with mental health issues.
“I changed my mind, and decided not to focus only on the movies. I want to help pay back my society,” says Li.
In 2010, the year Li appeared as martial arts specialist Yin Yang in the action-legend filled “The Expendables,” he was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, or an over-active thyroid. The condition causes changes in a person’s metabolism and heart rate, among other symptoms.
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But Li says he’s just picky about his film roles. He says he agreed to star in the $200 million “Mulan,” alongside fellow martial arts star Donnie Yen (Commander Tung) and Yifei Liu (Mulan), because his daughters loved the original animated 1998 film so much.
His Emperor makes powerful decrees in exquisitely ornate hand-embroidered silk costumes perched high in his ornate throne room, the film’s most dramatic location.
“In this film, my character doesn’t have a lot of action moves,” says Li, adding that director Niki Caro wanted to harness his inner power. “She said, ‘You’re not Jet Li, you’re the king. Just sit there and control everything.’ There are no emotions on my face.”
Producer Jason Reid said the role required Li’s gravitas as the imperial figure who forms so much of Mulan’s worldview.
“Jet brings something no one else could bring – that majesty and authority,” said Reid. “And he brings the swagger that ultimately goes into an action sequence.”
Li unleashes his famed Wushu sword skills in the “Mulan” finale, leading up to the confrontation with villainous Bori Khan, played by Jason Scott Lee. Screen adversary Lee said he felt like a pure fanboy watching the martial arts champion prepare for his battle scene, arranging the action to suit his skills and effortlessly executing.
“It was like watching a master class,” says Lee.
In between filming scenes of trying to kill the Emperor, Lee asked his screen “hero” and fully costumed co-star if they could take a picture together.
“Just when we’re ready to take the photo, Jet says, ‘Wait!’ I thought, he doesn’t want this picture to happen,” says Lee. “But Jet went and grabbed his Emperor’s helmet to put it on. He wouldn’t take the picture without the whole costume.”
Chasman says Li has been inspired by “Mulan” and is now seeking more film projects to be announced in the near future. But he’s also happy supporting rising actors, like Liu, who plays the heroic title character. Li first worked with the Chinese actress when she was 14. “I thought then, this girl will be a star,” he says.
Their first film together was 2008’s “The Forbidden Kingdom,” and Liu often recalls how the veteran actor saved her during an action scene gone wrong,dramatically riding alongside her runaway horse and bringing it to a stop.
Li laughs recalling the story. “She cannot control the horse. And I made the horse stop. I helped her. So I’m so happy,” he says.
But on the “Mulan” set, it was Liu’s warrior character who was tasked with saving Li’s Emperor.
“She said to me, ‘How do I save you. You’re the hero and master?’ ” Li recalls with a smile. “So I said, ‘Don’t think about it. You’re Mulan. Be true, be brave.’ ”