Born Li Lian-Jie in Beijing, China, Li was raised the youngest of five children. When he was only two, his father died, leaving him and his family to struggle on their own. At eight years old, he began studying wushu - Chinese for "martial arts" - which led to his first national championship for the Beijing Wushu Team when he was 11. Li soon toured the world after being selected by the government to represent the country by performing martial arts at various state functions, including on the White House lawn for President Richard Nixon in 1974 after he had opened relations with China. For the next five years, Li remained the All-Around National Wushu Champion of China, racking up numerous gold medals in competitions. By the time he was 17, Li retired from the sport, and a few short years later, made his feature debut in director Chang Hsin Yen's "The Shaolin Temple" (1982), the first Hong Kong action movie to be filmed on China's mainland. Li played a man who escapes death at the hands of the emperor and hides as a monk inside a temple where he trains in martial arts to extract revenge.Li made a splash in his first film, which - despite being banned in Taiwan - went on to become popular in China and other parts of Asia, leading to two sequels, "Shaolin Temple 2: Kids From Shaolin" (1984) and "Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin" (1986). The ambitious young actor soon made his directorial debut with "Born to Defence" (1988), a martial arts actioner set after World War II which depicted American sailors as being predatory villains. Also that year, he obtained a two-year exit visa from China and set up shop in San Francisco, CA, where he made his first feature in the United States, "The Master" (filmed in 1989, but released in 1992). Meanwhile, Li starred in Billy Tang's action thriller "Dragon Fight" (1989), playing a famous acrobat trying to hunt down a former star-turned-career criminal in San Francisco. Once his visa expired, Li chose to settle in Hong Kong instead of returning to China, where he rejuvenated his career by signing with famed production company, Golden Harvest. Almost immediately, Li had a breakthrough role as real-life folk hero in "Once Upon a Time in China" (1990), directed by Asian master, Tsui Hark.Despite critical carping over Li's relative youth and his training in another martial arts discipline, "Once Upon a Time in China" offered him one of the best roles of his career. Li played Wong Fei-Hung, a legendary 19th century doctor and martial arts expert who uses his skills to fight against Western forces - namely English, French and American -that are plundering China. A huge box office hit, the epic film was largely responsible for ushering in interest in Hong Kong filmmaking during the early 1990s. Li went on to reprise the role for two sequels, "Once Upon a Time in China II" (1992) an "Once Upon a Time in China III" (1993), though an ankle injury forced the use of a double in several fight sequences. Nevertheless, Li was a force to be reckoned with in a role many felt he was born to play. He did feel financially under-appreciated, however, and after a series of disputes, Li parted company with Golden Harvest. He was eventually replaced by another actor for two subsequent sequels.Over the next five years, Li appeared in over two dozen films of varying quality. He scored as another martial artist hero, "Fong Sai Yuk" (1993), and played his signature role of Wong Fei Hung in the uneven actioner "The Last Hero in China" (1993), on which he also served as producer. After the slapstick "Tai Chi Master" (1993), he starred in "The New Legend of Shaolin" (1994), playing a kung fu master who joins forces with another martial arts expert (Chingmy Yau) to defend a Shaolin temple against invaders. His skills were amply served with the more realistically portrayed martial arts in "Fist of Legend" (1994), while "Black Mask" (1996) - an attempt to create a new franchise based on a popular Hong Kong comic book. Unfortunately, Li suddenly found his career on the wane once again. He attempted a revival by resuming the franchise "Once Upon a Time in China and America" (1997), which depicted his familiar character amidst cowboys and Indians in the American Old West. Though it performed well at the box office, the film proved to be the last installment with Li in the lead.Meanwhile, Hollywood came calling for Li. But despite numerous offers from power players like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, the action star took his time following fellow Hong Kong actors Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Chow Yun-Fat to Los Angeles. At one time, he was attached to a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, but withdrew just before filming. At last, after the Asian economy bottomed out and film production suffered, Li journeyed across the Pacific to appear in his first American studio film, playing the seemingly unbeatable martial artist villain opposite Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the successful sequel, "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998). Li provided much of the heavy action lifting in the aging franchise, staying stone-faced while Gibson lobbed tired jokes at him. Li next starred in "Romeo Must Die" (2000), an earnest attempt to blend Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" with kung fu, pairing Li with late hip-hop artist Aaliyah as a star-crossed couple caught in the middle of a war between racially divided mobs in San Francisco. The film performed solidly at the box office, though critics - while praising Li's physical prowess - decried the seemingly unnecessary use of computer-aided effects in the action sequences.After arriving in Hollywood, Li spent much time expanding his English vocabulary while taking hiatus to marry actress Nina Li Chi and see her through the birth of their twin daughters, which resulted in the new father turning down Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). Inspired by his vow to protect his wife and child, Li received story credit on his next film, "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001), in which he plays a Chinese intelligence officer in Paris who comes to the aid of a single mom (Bridget Fonda) turned into a junkie hooker by a corrupt cop who kidnapped her daughter. Li next appeared in "The One" (2001) for writer-director James Wong, which added a sci-fi element to the martial arts genre. "The One" was a garbled, but often visually striking yarn in which Li played both the hero, Gabe Law, a popular and peaceable veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and the villainous Gabriel Yulaw, his doppelganger who gains power by murdering his alter egos in a multitude of parallel universes.Though he found little initial success in the United States, Li scored one of his greatest cinematic triumphs, "Ying xiong" (2002), which was released in the United States in 2004 under the title "Hero." Li teamed with celebrated writer-director Zhang Yimou - known more for character dramas than kicks and fisticuffs - and fellow Asian martial arts stars Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Daoming Chen and Donnie Yen for the big-budgeted tale set at the violent dawn of the Qin dynasty, circa 220 B.C. The soon-to-be first Emperor (Chen Daoming) is on the brink of conquering the war-torn land and three of his most passionate opponents (Cheung, Leung and Ziyi) are trying to assassinate him, opposed by the indomitable Li as Nameless, a lowly policeman who faces off against powerful forces. The film become a phenomenal hit in Asia and Europe, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 in the foreign language category before its North American release in 2004. "Hero" also proved to be a box office hit in the United States, where Li was finally introduced to his widest audience yet. Along with his major international success, Li outdid "Hero" with his biggest Hollywood hit yet, "Cradle 2 the Grave" (2003), an action thriller that paired him with rapper-actor DMX. Meanwhile, Li had a personal close call in 2004. While vacationing in the Maldives, the massive tsunami that claimed over 100,000 lives hit the area. Though it was reported he may have been one of the countless victims of the tragic natural disaster, Li later emerged alive and well, save for a minor foot injury caused by a piece of floating debris while he was bringing his 4-year-old daughter Jane to safer ground. Back on screen, he starred in the action thriller "Unleashed" (2005), playing Danny, a man trained since childhood to be a vicious fighter. Kept in a dank basement in rags and a metal collar by his cruel Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins), Danny finally breaks his bonds and finds redemption through love. The combination of martial arts and blunt sentimentality earned plenty of critical kudos for Li.With his next film, the period epic "Fearless" (2006), Li claimed in a magazine interview that the movie would be his last wushu offering. He played a martial arts expert who tries to avenge the death of his loved ones and restore the family name by forming a famed kung fu school. Back in Hollywood, he was the villain in the action thriller, "War" (2007), playing a notorious hit man who incurs the wrath of an FBI agent (Jason Statham) when he guns down his family and his partner (Terry Chen) in cold blood. After starring opposite Jackie Chan for the first time ever in "The Forbidden Kingdom" (2008), Li appeared alongside Brendan Fraser in the third installment to the "Mummy" series, "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" (2008), playing a resurrected emperor who intends to enslave the entire human race. Meanwhile, he was tapped to star alongside a who's who of action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren in "The Expendables" (2010).
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