Hero Marked A Long-Awaited Rematch For Two Martial Arts Legends

The martial arts movie may not be what it once was, but the debate around which legendary performer is the best of the best continues to this day. It's a question that plagues fans of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li equally. It's even fueled the hype for a few "team-up" movies in the past, like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris' unforgettable Colosseum brawl in "Way of the Dragon."

Unfortunately, said team-ups are often few and far between; packing too much star power in one film doesn't always equal success. But when done right, like in Zhang Yi-mou's wuxia epic "Hero," the results are nothing short of exhilarating — especially when it promises a rematch between two of the most well-established names in martial arts film history.

The fight that started it all

"Hero" follows Jet Li's nameless warrior on a quest for revenge that pits him against a trio of assassins, played by Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen, respectively. With Li, Leung, and Yen (as well as Zhang Ziyi of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame) the film boasts no less than three actors known for their martial arts roles. Leung is perhaps most famous for his decade-spanning collaboration with Wong Kar-wai; the actor studied kung fu for four years to play Ip Man in the director's arthouse biopic "The Grandmaster." It's a role he also shares with Yen, who rose to international fame playing the Wing Chun master in the "Ip Man" series.

That said, Yen has been duking it out in martial arts films for some time. Many fans of the genre were introduced to the actor in "Once Upon a Time in China II" — and it was there that Yen faced off with Jet Li for the first time.

In the 1992 film, Li reprises his role as the legendary figure Wong Fei Hung, and Yen is his adversary, Commander Nap-lan Yun-seut. Their first fight — in which Yen fashions a bo staff out of a pile of wet laundry — is an incredible testament to the strengths of both performers. Though Wong, of course, eventually triumphs over Nap-lan, the film cemented Yen as a formidable martial artist in his own right. It also laid the groundwork for his anticipated rematch with Li.

Jet Li vs Donnie Yen ... again

For a lot of martial arts fans, "Once Upon a Time in China II" was a rare beast. It's not every day that two legends appear in a film worthy of their respective talents, so as satisfying as it was to see Li face off with Yen so perfectly, it only left fans wanting more.

"A lot of fans want to see Donnie and I fighting again," Li confessed in a behind-the-scenes featurette for "Hero." But 10 years would pass before another perfect opportunity presented itself.

It was Li who read the script first; he told Black Belt that it was the first to ever make him cry. "It's an incredible story where drama is first and action is there to help the story."

It was also Li who personally vouched for Yen to play the assassin Long Sky. But Yen, who had since made the jump to Hollywood, was reluctant to return to Hong Kong cinema. "I thought I wasn't ready to go back to China to shoot a film yet," he recalled. After working on films like "Highlander: Endgame" and "Blade II," Yen found himself "spoiled" by the "catering and pampering" on Hollywood sets.

Fortunately, Yen learned quickly that Li was already attached to the project — and was lobbying to bring Yen on board as well. The actor was just as keen for a rematch against Li as their fans were. "I was also thinking that after 10 years, Jet just wanted to beat me up again."

A treat for well-versed fans

The duel between Long Sky and Nameless is a definite highlight in a film already stacked with memorable moments. It also played a huge role in drawing martial arts fans to the film. Even Quentin Tarantino, who helped "Hero" secure a stateside release, called Li and Yen's reunion a "rematch" of sorts.

"One of the greatest fights ever in martial arts films, is the fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen in 'Once Upon a Time in China Part 2,'" the director said. Their history made the fight in "Hero" an even bigger deal for Tarantino. "I didn't even believe it when I heard, 'Really? They're fighting again? Great!' Because it's like a rematch!"