Box-Office Kung Fu and the Careers of Jackie Chan and Jet Li

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Just when it looked like the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall, would restore producer Judd Apatow to the box-office throne after faltering with Drillbit Taylor and Walk Hard, along came Jackie Chan and Jet Li to kick his butt. Well, it wasn't exactly an ass-whupping. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, featuring Jason Segel in the naked comedy performance of the year, scored $17 million as compared to $20 million for the Chan-Li Forbidden Kingdom. My hunch is that FSM will be a steady performer while FK took the temporary lead due to audience curiosity about the historic first teaming of two martial arts legends. After all, Forbidden Kingdom is a lame PG-13 excuse for hardcore kung fu, toning down the violence to sucker in the family crowd.

The story concerns a Boston teenager (Michael Angarano), jazzed by Bruce Lee posters and bootleg kung fu DVDs, who gets zapped back to ancient China to learn valuable lessons from Chan, a drunken master, and Li, a silent monk. The plot's a yawn, but the fight scenes, choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen, slap you awake. It's great watching Chan and Li mix it up, but the movie is way more Hollywood than Hong Kong and makes you think of what have been.

Actually, it makes me think of what's been happening to the movie careers of Chan and Li. Chan turned 54 on April 7th, and his mainstream movies, such as Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights and the Rush Hour trilogy haven't shown him at his action best. It's not just age, but insurance issues, that prevent him from performing all his stunts like he does at home. He nearly killed himself shooting 1986's Armour of God, when a fall from a tree fractured his skull. Chan is now thinking of directing the third film in the series, Chinese Zodiac.

As for Li, ten years, Chan's junior, he just won the Best Actor prize at the Hong Kong film awards with the epic drama The Warlords, and has threatened to end his kung-fu film career. "If I had not made a lot of kung fu films, I could have won the best actor award 20 years ago," said Li. Maybe so. After winning fifteen gold medals in Chinese wushu championships, Li made his 1982 film debut with Shaolin Temple, impressing audiences with his martial-arts skill. His 1998 Hollywood debut in Lethal Weapon 4 cast Li for the first time ever as a bad guy. The record shows that, aside from Romeo Must Die and the international hit scored by Hero, most of Li's U.S. films, such as Kiss of the Dragon, The One, Unleashed, Cradle 2 the Grave, Fearless and War, failed to set the box office on fire. The fact that Li will go villain again this summer in the umpteenth sequel to The Mummy, subtitled Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, does not exactly fill my head with memories of his glory days.

And that leads me to today's question: What movies show Jackie Chan and Jet Li at their absolute action and acting best? For Chan, I'm torn between 1978's Drunken Master and 1985's Police Story (was Jackie ever funnier?). For Li, It's a tossup between 1991's Once Upon A Time in China, with Li on those ladders, and 1994's Fist of Legend, a remake of Bruce Lee's Chinese Connection in which Li does the master proud. All reasonble arguments accepted.