What does Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and Wu Jing have in common? You could say they’re all major Asian martial arts movie stars, expert martial artists, do charity work, they all know each other and praise each others work. True. Yet what sets them apart from other Asian fighting stars is that they’re all members of a new club in town, the Billion Dollar Franchise Film Club (BDFFC) for live action movies. We’re talking about co-starring in a film franchise that uses the same lead, and by combining the worldwide boxoffice receipts and VHS/DVD sales, the franchise has earned over US $1 billion.
Jet Li was the first Chinese actor to enter the Billion Dollar Franchise Film Club. Jet Li often portrayed storied Chinese characters seeped in philosophy, heroism and virtue, yet in the final installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise, Lethal Weapon IV (1998; LW4) it was the first time Li played a criminal out to kill Mel Gibson‘s Riggs character. I first met Li in 1997 on the set of Lethal Weapon 4. The question on my mind was how did he feel playing the bad guy?
With a charming grin he shared in English, “When I met director Dick Donner I say to him, ‘I am to play the bad guy?’ He says my smile is cute but then I can change the face (his smile becomes a scowl) to be cruel, dangerous. I think bad guys never think they bad, they think what they do is right. So being a bad guy, I think I’m playing a good guy.”
Three years later, Gibson and Li co-produced the TV martial arts movie Invincible (2001), the premise focusing on five characters named after five elements (gold, wood, water, fire, earth), and how they must work together to create balance.
Although Lethal Weapon 4 was Li’s Hollywood debut, it wasn’t the first time he did a film in the US. That honor goes to the obscure comedy Dragon Fight (1989), followed by The Master (made in 1990, released in 1992) and Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997).
The irony about Li’s next appearance in a BDFF was that he again played a villain, a character based on China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. He was a newly resurrected evil mummy bent on taking over the world and underworld, in what was considered one of the most anticipated films of 2008, the third and final installment of The Mummy franchise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
Donnie Yen broke into the Billion Dollar Franchise Film Club playing the enigmatic, blind, non-Jedi Knight in the seventh installment of the Star Wars franchise Rogue One (2016). Though not his first Hollywood showcase, the others being Highlander: End Game (2000), Blade II (2002) and Shanghai Knights (2003), critics and fans agreed that Donnie Yen stole the movie as his character Chirrut Imwe was the most interesting and had the coolest fights.
Feeding off Yen’s popularity, a month later Yen’s co-starring role in XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017) made this sequel superiorly better than the first two installments. Film pundits praised Yen’s performance as a scene stealing barrage of martial fury with relished appreciation for his fight with Tony Jaa. After Donnie Yen saw Jaa’s Ong Bak he admitted, “Jaa has beaten Hong Kong at their own game and I’ll use Ong Bak as a motivating force to do better in my own work.”
Discovered by Yuen Woo-ping, Yen was cast in Yuen’s Drunken Tai Chi (1984). Yuen was the fight choreography for Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), which featured Yen and Li performing a most memorable and dynamic pole fight scene.
The long awaited Li-Yen rematch occurred when they fought in Hero (2002). After the Shanghai Knights‘ (2003) Hollywood premiere, Yen confessed to me, “I thought I wasn’t ready to go back to China to shoot a film yet. I was spoiled working outside of Hong Kong, all the catering and pampering. But when fight director Ching Siu-tung said I’d be fighting Jet, I said, ‘Okay.’ I think after 10 years, Jet just wanted to beat me up again.”
What’s so unique about the Li-Yen rematch in Hero? In kung fu folklore, fighters with powerful chi could sit in front of each other, send their spirits out of their bodies and have their spirits fight. A fighter died if his spirit died during the fight. For the first half of the duel, their characters’ spirits did the fighting. This has rarely been done on film.
Though widely known for his fluid violent fights in the landmark martial arts film Ong Bak (2003), Tony Jaa joined the BDFFC with two muted, yet welcomed action duels with the late Paul Walker in the seventh installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise Furious 7 (F7; 2015).
Due to Jaa’s well documented melt down and subsequent bad blood between what Tony Jaa considered to be a close family (director Prachya Pinkaew, producer Somsak Techaratanaprasert and his martial arts mentor/fight coordinator Panna Rittikrai), the importance of Furious 7 went beyond money and increased visibility.
Since the premise behind Furious 7 centered around the notion of family and based on the open arm and heart acceptance Tony Jaa received from Vin Diesel and the film franchise, it seemed that Jaa had found a new family to latch onto. However, as Jaa was transitioning from one cinematic family to another, in a cruel twist of fate, both of these families had a death…Paul Walker from Furious 7 and Jaa’s life mentor Pranna.
After Furious 7 and packed with renewed confidence, Tony Jaa was ready to handle the rigors of Asian film working alongside Wu Jing in the sequel to Donnie Yen’s SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005), where Wu played a thug. Yet in Sha Po Lang 2 (2015; Kill Zone 2), Wu and Jaa were heroes.
A few years after fighting Jet Li in Badge of Fury (2013), Wu Jing (aka Jacky Wu Jing), an actor-director of Manchu descent, starred and directed in Wolf Warrior. However, due to its sequel Wolf Warrior II (2017), Wu became the first Asian star as the lead, to enter the BDFFC. Forty-nine days after its debut, Wolf Warrior II had globally earned $871 million making Wu a household name in China.
Wu Jing began practicing wushu at age six then similar to Li, became a member of the Beijing Wushu team and like Yen was cinematically discovered by Yuen Woo-ping who cast Wu Jing in Tai Chi II (1996), a sequel to Li’s The Tai Chi Master (1992)
In an interview with Asian Movie Pulse, Wu Jing said that 1700 people worked tirelessly on Wolf Warrior II for a long time adding, “In Africa, 22 of us were bitten and partly paralyzed by spiders, someone’s hand got bitten by a lion and another person had a gun pointed at the head. We made many sacrifices.”
Ten years ago Wolf Warrior was targeted to be a trilogy and thus three scripts were already in place. Yet with global political changes and new presidents in power, Wolf Warrior III will need adjustments. Yet the film will still show family and national sentiments, and resolve the romance between the two main characters from Wolf Warrior.