Lethal Weapon 4 is the first American movie to feature Jet Li and, as such, marks the beginning of an era in this performer’s filmography that has caused mixed reactions in his fans. The perception among some fans at least (and, of course, I am generalizing here) is that many of Li’s American vehicles have wasted his unique talents, and that perhaps his career has come somewhat unstuck as a subsequence (1). But I am not sure that Lethal Weapon 4 is the worst offender because I think it has to be considered a little differently to the other American films in Li’s oeuvre.
For one thing, Lethal Weapon 4 is the last installment in a highly successful franchise that had established its own definite style of frenetic banter intercut with gunplay and pyrotechnics. Apart from The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, none of Li’s other Hollywood films were parts of franchises. The Lethal Weapons movies were all vehicles for Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and Jet Li was on board number 4 as a co-star (albeit in an important role). Although Li’s American fans were stalwart in their support of Li in the movie – “When Jet Li was slighted on Warners’ Lethal Weapon 4 Webpage, the howls of protest from fans forced Warners to redesign its advertising campaign” (David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, p. 96) – surely all of them would not have expected any less than to see Gibson and Glover firmly entrenched in the star roles. Lethal Weapon 4 was not developed as a specific vehicle for Li. It seems unreasonable to cavil at it in the same way as some fans (me included) complain about the use of Li in other Hollywood films that purported to be made for him.
So what kind of a deal does Li get from Lethal Weapon 4? A gratifying aspect for any of Li’s fans’ appraisal of his performance in the film is how well he acquits himself. Li’s performance seems to be a still centre to the scenes his character is in. Ironically, Hong Kong movies are often accused of being crazy (2) but in Lethal Weapon 4 it is the Western characters, their shouted and bickering dialogue and the juvenile practical jokes, gun battles and explosions that they cause, who come across as anarchistic. I think, on balance, the contrast between Li’s quiet performance and the overall bombast of the rest of the film is an effective one, both in underlining Li’s great screen presence and focus as a performer and in defining by that same contrast the high energy of the other performers so beloved to fans of the Lethal Weapon franchise. Li glides regally through all of this chaos, dominating his scenes with a relaxed authority and effortless charisma. In the non-action scenes his gestures and expressions are absolutely minimal but impactful, and I found myself intently watching his often still and silent figure (3), rather than the bustle happening around him, waiting for his next expression in a way that I didn’t do with Glover, Gibson et al.
“Li’s dramatic specialty is the tension between big (even repressed) emotions and the heroic need for reticence and control… His virtually wordless performance in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) gives unexpected depth to what is otherwise the most stereotypical of ‘inscrutable’ Chinese heavies” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p 142
So much for Li’s dramatic performance, but what of his physical performance in this film? When I watch many of Li’s Hollywood vehicles I get enormously frustrated that we just don’t see enough of Li doing martial arts, and the martial arts fights we do see are shorter, more simplistically choreographed and often badly edited. I don’t quite experience this level of frustration with Lethal Weapon 4. To be sure, its martial arts fights are few and brief, but, as stated above, this film is part of a franchise with an established style of action that is centred on the gun fights, street fighting, car chases and explosions engaged in by its 2 main characters. Because of Li’s presence as a co-star, I assumed a little martial arts would get a look in but I didn’t ever watch this film expecting it to be much of a wu shu showcase. By contrast, I have felt (rightly or wrongly) that other Hollywood films that have featured Li as a star have extended the promise that their particular star’s brand of action would be featured. What I have often seen is undistinguished choreography, blurrily filmed and / or choppily edited. My expectations have repeatedly not been met, and I felt that, as a Jet Li fan, I had been cynically conned out of the price of admission. I can’t speak for other fans but, for me, Lethal Weapon 4 didn’t seem to extend this promise and therefore its few short fights, although by no means masterpieces, subsequently did not disappoint as much. I feel that the editing of the martial arts fights in Lethal Weapon 4 is not as bad as it is in some of Li’s other Hollywood films – it is actually possible to follow the fights and see what actions are being executed and by whom. We can also see that it is Li doing the fighting.
The martial arts choreography is attributed to master choreographer Corey Yuen Kuei, along with Li’s regular stunt team members Guk Hin Chiu and Ling Chi Wah. These 3 gentlemen have worked on oodles of brilliant kung fu choreography as directors, choreographers or performers in Hong Kong. Li’s action scene in the Murtaugh household and his final fight scene in the warehouse have a few fancy moves, but considering the creative talent credited with producing the choreography it is striking how simplistic it is compared to the sophisticated craft on show in so many Hong Kong kung fu films.
“’Our sense of reality is different from their sense of reality’, explains Richard Donner on the DVD commentary for Lethal Weapon 4, explaining the modification of Hong Kong action.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 180
Perhaps Lethal Weapon 4’s “sense of reality” needed to modify Hong Kong action so that it was believable that Li’s character was only shown to be enough of a martial arts expert to be a genuine threat, but not so super-duper (a la Wong Fei Hung) that he couldn’t be beaten by 2 tired middle aged guys without a shred of kung fu expertise between them. Perhaps, and I am sticking my neck out here, the American creative team behind Lethal Weapon 4 were inexperienced in, and dubious about, the baroque creativity that informs the choreography of action in so many Hong Kong films. And there’s the rub – this dumbing down of the choreography Li would get to perform in a lot of his Hollywood fight scenes (and by extension his choreographers – usually Corey Yuen – would be constrained to fashion) becomes an all too regular feature of the films he made in the West (apart from Kiss of the Dragon and Danny the Dog).
On the Special Features of my Hong Kong Legends release of Once Upon A Time in China there is some footage of Jet Li conducting a Q&A session with fans. During the Q&A Li makes the comment that at around the time he was making Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die he was just trying to establish himself in the US and that he didn’t have many choices as to the type of movie he wanted to make. Tellingly, he goes on to say that he hoped for more choice in the future. I wonder if now he would agree that he has been given better choices. While I do like Kiss of the Dragon and Danny the Dog, my perspective is that many of his choices have been disappointing.
A final note: Li’s hairdo in Lethal Weapon 4? Just nasty.
(1) “Many longstanding fans have been disappointed by Jackie Chan and Jet Li’s Hollywood fight scenes and found Yuen Wu Ping’s Matrix choreography inferior to his earlier work – too short, too slow, lacking the intricate rhythms and dynamic power of their Hong Kong films.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p 157
(2) “’It is all too extravagant, too gratuitously wild,’ a New York Times reviewer complained of an early kung-fu import; now the charge looks like a badge of honor.” David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, p. 2
(3) “Bruce and Jet… are magnificent posers – Lee’s fifty-yard stare, Li’s combination of intensity and calm.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 44