LOS ANGELES – Jet Li (search) wants to touch your soul before he kicks your butt.
The Hong Kong action star says too many martial-arts movies ignore heart and emotion in favor of vengeance and gore.
He said his latest film to hit U.S. theaters, the Mandarin-language "Hero," (search) is an antidote to other by-the-numbers action movies, an epic story about ancient China that aims to mesmerize moviegoers.
"We make the movements like a dream, more romantic, look pretty and (characters) have respect. It's not like old Hong Kong films -- two guys fighting, destroy the table, everything in the room broken and destroyed. Here it's more classic," Li said, clutching a string of Buddhist prayer beads while sitting on an outdoor patio of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before a recent preview screening.
In "Hero," set circa 200 B.C., Li plays a nameless ranger who receives an audience with the King of Qin, a historical figure who became China's first emperor, oversaw the building of the Great Wall and conquered the six other warring states.
A trio of assassins from those regions -- Sky, Broken Sword and Snow -- have long tried to murder the king, and Li's character is there to relate how he defeated Sky (Donnie Yen) with mystical swordsmanship and used the love between Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Snow (Maggie Cheung) to turn them against each other.
In "Hero," human beings hover over placid mountain lakes, dart toward each other faster than light, clash swords with a thousand marauding soldiers and deflect impossible attacks under a sky blackened by flying arrows.
"We talk about martial arts having three levels," Li said in broken English. "The first level we talk about the physical: Sword on your hand is part of your body. You use like it's your arm. The second part, you don't (really) have a sword but the sword in your heart. Before the physical contact, maybe you can scare them. Maybe you can use imagination, talking. Make them afraid.
"Third level, the highest level," he added. "You love your enemy."
In other words, mercy is courage.
But is that what action film fans want? Li says they do, but Hollywood is too timid to give it to them.
He points to the success of the similarly operatic fighting film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a Mandarin-language drama that debuted in the United States in 2000 and earned nearly $130 million.
What's more, Li said, is that many action fans already love the movie. The movie debuted in China in 2002, and DVDs of "Hero" have made their way from Asia and Europe to the United States, where the movie is copied and traded.
But so far, because distributor Miramax Films has long delayed the theatrical release, most U.S. fans have only seen it on their TV screens.
Li hopes they'll see it again on the big screen when it opens nationwide Friday.
The 41-year-old actor, who spent two decades as a Hong Kong star before making the transition to Hollywood in 1998's "Lethal Weapon 4," also sees this as a transition for him.
"I made more than 30 movies, most of them commercial action films: Good guy, got a problem, learning martial arts, come back, revenge, kill the bad guy. Lot of that," he said. "I want to find some movies to make that's different."
In "Hero," Li said director Zhang Yimou wanted to explore "what kind of person can become hero" within the framework of fighting, politics, romance and jealousy. Is it the conquering king? The assassins? The killer of the assassins?
After having hits with the American "Kiss of the Dragon," "Romeo Must Die" and "The One," Li was advised against forgoing his usual salary to return to China and star in a Mandarin-language movie.
But he liked the philosophical story, and said the script made him cry twice.
"They say, 'Jet, you're crazy. You're stupid,' because I don't take money. I say, `OK, fine. I just want to make it.' My experience is, if I continue to make this kind of film, another `Romeo Must Die,' another `Cradle 2 the Grave,' it's just another kick ass. What's that? After three? One, they like it, second it's OK, then three and four ... go home. Finished. Because the audience grew up, you didn't. The studio didn't. I think today they want some unique story, unique way to talk about a story. That's why we have `Crouching Tiger,' and 'Hero' and 'Unleashed."'
"Unleashed" is his next English-language action movie, set for U.S. release in spring 2005, and Li plays a master fighter who's enslaved by an underground-fight promoter and treated like a dog throughout adulthood. When his leash is removed, he brutally attacks whoever's in sight.
Li hopes that movie and "Hero" will help him put the "artist" back into "martial artist."