Have you seen Jet Li lately? With one notable exception, he has mostly retired from acting. From injuries and other health concerns to a shift in focus to charity work, keep watching to learn the reasons Li has mostly moved out of the spotlight.
Actor and martial artist Jet Li rose to fame in the 1990s after starring in the Hong Kong classic Once Upon a Time in China. The film proved to be a pivotal moment for Chinese martial arts films, ushering in what Criterion described as the golden age of Hong Kong cinema in the ’90s.
Li was born in Beijing in 1963 and began appearing in Chinese films as a teenager. After the success of Once Upon a Time in China, he set his sights on Hollywood. For the next two decades, he appeared in English-language action movies including Lethal Weapon 4, Romeo Must Die, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and The Expendables. One movie series he didn’t appear in, though, was The Matrix. He was offered the role of Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded, and was reportedly the first choice to play the Oracle’s bodyguard. But he was more skeptical than flattered by the offer. In 2018, Li told a Chinese news show that his Matrix contract would have required him to relinquish ownership of some of his original martial arts moves. He said: “They wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library. By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them.” He turned down the role, and Collin Chou ended up playing the character instead.
While many Hollywood stars ride their wave of success as long as possible, actors specializing in Wushu Chinese martial arts tend to be careful and intentional about how they end their careers. Li explained in a 2006 interview with CinemaBlend that the foundations of Wushu inspired his decision to end his martial arts movie career with the film Fearless. Li described Wushu as having multiple levels, including physical skill, mental acuity, and personal belief. Li used every one of these physical and mental levels for the performance, and recognized that it would probably be his last martial arts movie for that reason. This was not necessarily a retirement announcement, though. Li made it clear he would still act for stories that didn’t require martial arts moves.
In 2010, Li was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, according to the South China Morning Post. The Mayo Clinic describes the condition as speeding up the metabolism, resulting in weight loss, fatigue, and an abnormal heartbeat. In 2013, Li discussed his diagnosis as a guest host on a Chinese talent show. He explained, “I’m in pain, but I’m not suffering. I’m happy.”
In 2018, a viral photo raised concerns that the 55-year-old actor looked frail and unwell. Li addressed that concern, telling The Singapore Press that his health was under control and that while he may look a little older, his mindset was as young as ever. He elaborated: “You can undergo cosmetic surgery to look younger, but what is the use if you think like an old person?”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor has suffered several leg and spine injuries. Li also once admitted that his doctor advised against him continuing his action movie career, as it could eventually leave him confined to a wheelchair. It’s possible that past injuries may have contributed to his relatively early retirement.
Li has also made a conscious decision to focus on charity projects. He told USA Today, “I changed my mind and decided not to focus only on the movies. I want to help pay back my society.” Li’s philanthropic organization, called One Foundation, was inspired by a near-death experience he had in the Maldives during the disastrous 2004 tsunami. He told Newsweek, “I had spent the first 41 years of my life thinking about Jet Li first, wanting to prove I was special, wanting to prove I was a star.” After that moment in the Maldives, Li decided to shift his focus to helping others.
The very next week, he began making plans for One Foundation. The charity got off the ground in earnest in 2007 and it has remained his primary focus in the years since. Even so, Li hasn’t totally given up on acting. Though he was initially hesitant to take on the role of the Emperor in Disney’s 2020 live-action “Mulan” remake, his daughters, Jada and Jane, convinced him to do it.
Li told Shin Min Daily News, “Jada asked me if I am proud to promote Chinese culture to the world. I didn’t disagree. I do like to share Chinese culture with the world.” His role in “Mulan” certainly differed from what he did in past films. There was no fighting involved; he had to mostly just sit and look regal.
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