Jetruary continues and this week I'll be reviewing Jet's one and only film credit as a director. Jet plays Jet. Must have taken him a long time to think of a character name. A soldier returning from war with Japan and decides to settle down in the city of Tsing Tao with an old army buddy and make a living as a rickshaw driver. Soon the US navy arrives on their way home from fighting in the pacific and they start to cause trouble for the locals. Jet decides enough is enough and stands up to them hoping to put a stop to the bullying and help his fellow China-men.
Jet isn't the first Chinese martial arts star to direct his own movie. The likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen have all sat in the director's chair and tried to translate their vision of a motion picture onto the big screen. Unlike those other stars Jet decided to try his hand at directing very early on in his career. While someone like Jackie Chan got to grips with the finer points of film making while working under different directors and cameramen. Jet felt confident enough to try and tackle his own film. The end result is a mixed bag of brutal martial arts action, racial stereotypes and hackneyed messages of patriotism. While Jet did show some tremendous promise as a film maker, his choice of script seemed extremely naive. It's obvious what kind of story he was trying to tell however any attempts at subtlety and drama are bogged down by the horrible dialogue and the way foreigners are portrayed.
Jet plays the typical down trodden working hero trying to fight against the tyranny of the evil foreigners bullying his fellow man. This type of portrayal is nothing new. Foreigners were often used as bad guys in Chinese movies and were nothing more then plot devices and hate figures for the audience. This disappointed me as I thought someone as well traveled as Jet Li is would have been hesitant to do this type of thing. Having said that, I don't think there's anything malicious about it, like I said before it's mostly Jet's inexperience and naivety as a director that betrays him here.
My issues with the story aside, everyone involved does give very good performances. Jet plays the idealistic young soldier whose moral views of society are shattered when he realizes what is being done to his friends at the hands of the US sailors. A man who has seen the horrors of war and has killed in order survive, he is looking for some semblance of normality, only to find that his hopes of leading a contented life will not be fulfilled if he turns a blind eye to what is happening. At least that's how I hoped Jet would play the character. Instead his character is that of a violently impulsive youth who throws a punch at a white man for looking at him the wrong way. It's not as xenophobic as it sounds as these sailors often do something to earn a beating from our young hero.
In some of the more dramatic moments he does a decent job but he often over acts and comes off a little awkward. His co-stars fair a little better. Erkang Zhao plays Jet's close friend Zhao. Jet's superior during the war he is now just a simple rickshaw driver trying to come to terms with the fact his daughter is a prostitute. He gives it just that right level of world weariness and he gives an incredibly sympathetic performance. His daughter Na played by Jia Song is also very good. Despite not having much to work with she does extremely well. I much preferred this story as opposed to the main plot line. It does come to a rather melodramatic conclusion but that's always the nature with these types of stories so it's always better to just let the characters go for a more logical conclusion as opposed to trying to force something more realistic on them.
Despite the lackluster story telling. The film packs in some incredibly good action. Jet worked along side Tsui Siu-Ming who had served as action director on films such as Bury Me High and Holy Robe of Shaolin Temple. The style of action is less traditional Kung Fu and more stylized street fighting. The type that was becoming popular in Hong Kong during the 1980's. Jet does a tremendous job of showing off his flair for stunning kicks and also being able to take some incredibly painful looking bumps. One early scene sees him being run over by a car and you can tell by the extremely pained expression on his face as he hits the ground that it did not tickle. Painful is definitely a word I would use to describe the action that takes place. There's a very good fight which takes place inside a boxing ring when Jet goes up against a sailor by the name of Bailey played by Paulo Tocha. An actor and martial artist who has appeared in dozens of b-movie type action pictures.
The fight does an excellent job of contrasting Western boxing and Chinese Kung Fu. It was clear these two had chemistry when it came to fighting on screen and it's a shame they never had another opportunity to work together and try and top what was already a very solid clash. Jet also goes up against the late Kurt Roland Petersson. A Swedish martial artist who only ever made two films in his career. The other was a bruceploitation film released in 1985. Petersson makes for quite an opponent. He towers over Jet, creating a good visual contrast between them and makes Petersson look a lot more formidable. They face off no less then three times over the course of the film and each time they set out to just straight up beat the crap out of each other. You totally get the feeling that these two aren't just fighting so they can be the victor, they're fighting to hurt each other.
The final fight between them which takes place in a factory is very good. Jet takes some serious knocks and Petersson takes some hefty looking kicks to the legs and face. Jet also throws in some improvised weaponry. Including the use of a chain in place of the traditional Chinese rope dart. It's in my top five Jet Li fights ever. Jet in his younger days is most definitely a sight to behold. Before the days of heavy wire use, he was just outstanding. He has done some solid films in his more recent years such as Fearless but if you want to see a raw, energetic and untamed Jet Li in his prime? films such as this and Shaolin Temple are highly recommended.
If you're wondering why Jet never went on to direct another film since Born to Defend, it's quite simple. He hated it. The film ran overschedule and over budget. To make matters worse Jet sustained several injuries during filming including a severe back injury which plagues him to this day and a badly broken nose. Jet found the entire experience so stressful that he's more content to just act in front of the camera instead of being behind it. Which is a shame because had he continued his career as a director he could have developed his skill and go on to make some very good movies but we as fans will just have to be happy with the one solitary movie that he put together.
After viewing the film for the first time in many years I can say that it's not flawless by any stretch but one which showed a director with great promise and an action film that delivers some great screen fighting and further showcases Jet in his much more hard hitting young days. That's it for this entry in Jetruary. Join me next time when we'll see Jet appear with some very familiar faces as he heads across the pond to the United States.