Here's Why Jet Li Disappeared From Hollywood

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 in Chinese martial arts films, ushering in what Criterion described as the golden age of Hong Kong cinema during the '90s. The actor subsequently grew to prominence in Hollywood alongside martial arts stars like Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung and filmmakers like John Woo — all of whom became action movie icons of the era.

Per, Li was born in Beijing, China in 1963 and started his training in martial arts at a young age. He began appearing in Chinese films as a teenager and became well-known in his home country. After the success of "Once Upon a Time in China" and the international recognition he received due to the film, he set his sights on Hollywood. For the next two decades, he appeared in English-language action movies like "Lethal Weapon 4," "Romeo Must Die," "The Expendables," and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor." But in recent years, it seems he's shied away from the spotlight. 

Has Li disappeared from Hollywood? Let's take a look at why he stopped making movies, what he's been up to, and whether or not he's actually been hiding.

He turned down a role in the Matrix franchise

Given the incredible success and popularity of the original trilogy, it's hard to imagine any action star turning down a role in one of the installments of "The Matrix." However, when Jet Li was offered the role of Seraph in the sure-to-be-a-hit sequel "Matrix Reloaded," he was more skeptical than flattered. As noted by IndieWire, the actor was the first choice of filmmaking siblings, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, to depict the guardian angel of the Oracle.

However, in 2018, the martial arts star told Chinese news anchor Chen Luyu (via Abacus) that his contract on the film would have allegedly required him to relinquish ownership of some of his original martial arts moves. "... 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 explained. Unsurprisingly, he turned down the role and Collin Chou played the character instead. 

While it was a tough decision, Li stuck to his instinct. He reasoned that the physical aspect of his career had a time limit while his virtual property did not, adding in the interview, "We martial artists could only grow older ... Yet they could own [my moves] as an intellectual property forever. So I said I couldn't do that." In hindsight, that was probably a wise decision considering the way technology has advanced — I mean, hello, have you seen CGI Luke Skywalker?

Why Fearless was his final wushu film

Wushu, or kung fu, is the Chinese word for martial arts. Specifically, while kung fu is a more traditional close combat form, wushu is associated with more modern disciplines which focus on choreography, performance, and exhibition. While many Hollywood stars ride their wave of success until it runs aground, for an actor specializing in wushu, a careful and intentional finale is more appropriate. Li explained why in a 2006 interview with CinemaBlend, where the star discussed how the foundations of wushu inspired his decision to end his martial arts movies with the film, "Fearless." 

Based on the true story of Chinese martial artist Huo Yuanjia, the film is an exploration of a ruthless fighter's journey to spiritual redemption. "Wushu has many levels," he told the outlet. "Just to make it easy to understand, maybe three levels. First level is ... [using] physical skill against your enemy ... The second level is use your knowledge, languages, strategy, everything you could before physical contact to stop your enemy. Third, use your honor, belief, your love ... Turn your enemy into your friend." 

The actor recognized that this was likely to be his final wushu movie since he was utilizing every one of these physical and mental levels for the performance. However, this was not necessarily a retirement announcement — Li made it clear he would still act and do fight scenes for stories that didn't require martial arts moves.

Jet Li's health was rumored to have ended his career

In 2010, Jet Li was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, according to the South China Morning Post. The condition speeds up metabolism, resulting in weight loss, fatigue, and an abnormal heartbeat, per Mayo Clinic. In 2013, the "Romeo Must Die" star discussed his diagnosis during his time as a guest host on a Chinese talent show (via The Hollywood Reporter). He explained, "I'm in pain, but I'm not suffering. I'm happy."

In 2018, concerns were raised that the 55-year-old actor looked frail and unwell after a fan photo went viral. Later, Li told The Singapore Press (via The Straits Times), "Recently, the Web has been abuzz with news that I'm going to be wheelchair-bound. Even my friends are concerned and are asking how I am." The wushu master then reassured everyone that his health was under control and that while he may look a little older, his mindset was as young as ever, saying, "You can undergo cosmetic surgery to look younger, but what is the use if you think like an old person?"

Of course, a career as strenuous as martial arts is bound to take a physical toll. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor had 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 wheelchair-bound. Thus, it seems possible that past injuries may have contributed to his comparatively early retirement.

The real reason Jet Li was incognito for years

While rumors of his declining health continued to churn, Jet Li denied that he had given up showbiz for that reason alone. Instead, he made a conscious decision to focus on other things, telling USA Today, "Life is a movie, too." The actor started a charity that helps victims of natural disasters, with a specific focus on supporting those 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," he explained to the publication.

His philanthropic endeavor, called One Foundation, was inspired by a near-death experience he had in the Maldives during the disastrous 2004 tsunami. "That day in the Maldives was a real turning point for me. 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," he told Newsweek. But in that moment he realized there was more to life than fame and money and he decided to shift his focus to helping others. The next week, he began making plans for One Foundation. Though it took him a few years to work out the details, Li finalized the charity's existence in 2007 and the nonprofit has remained his primary focus for the past decade.

He made an appearance in 'Mulan' in 2020

Having consciously sidestepped the trappings of fame for years, it's no surprise that Jet Li became very choosy about the film roles he decided to take on. In fact, when he was offered the role of Emperor in the 2020 live-action remake of the Disney animated classic, "Mulan," he was initially hesitant to join the cast and originally turned down the offer, per Shin Min Daily News (via Yahoo! Entertainment).

However, his daughter Jada, who was 15 at the time, along with her older sister, Jane, convinced him otherwise. A fan of the animated original, his daughters believed it was an important film for Chinese culture. "She 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," Li told the outlet. He decided to say yes for the sake of his daughters and for the pride of sharing Chinese culture with a mainstream global audience.

His role as Emperor in "Mulan" certainly differed from his roles in the past in that he wasn't showing off his fighting skills. Instead, he had to mostly sit and look regal. According to producer Jason Reid, it was a part he adapted to triumphantly, telling USA Today, "Jet brings something no one else could bring — that majesty and authority ... And he brings the swagger that ultimately goes into an action sequence."

Has Hollywood given up on martial arts films?

Once upon a time and well into the early '00s, martial arts films were a lucrative movie genre in western cinema, as demonstrated by Jet Li's box-office hits. But nowadays Hollywood seems to be more focused on big budget superhero films than kung fu flicks. Notably, CGI fighting has also now replaced the need for highly-trained martial artists. Jackie Chan, who co-starred with Li in "The Forbidden Kingdom" told IndieWire in 2015, "Martial arts films are difficult to shoot, it's not easy, you know. You have to have an actor who can really fight ... Honestly, in Hollywood, not many actors know martial arts!...they can use a special effect to do all kinds of action."

Still, one can't help but wonder if some of the magic of live-action fight scenes gets lost without real kung fu masters like Li or Chan showing off their skills in front of the camera. As a Black Belt Magazine article suggested in 2015, "The fine art of fight choreography is being underappreciated and shortchanged." While there's much to praise when it comes to CGI effects in movies nowadays, the current lack of kung fu films and martial arts movie stars speaks to what we may have lost amidst technological advances. The close of Jet Li's film career may have also marked the end of an era.