Jet Li's Reputation Caused Some Problems On The Set Of Fearless

The 2006 martial arts film "Fearless" is regarded as not only one of Jet Li's best films, but as one of the best kung fu movies. Loosely based on true events, Li portrays Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who becomes a hero in China after defeating foreign fighters in publicized matches during the 1900s — a time when the country was struggling to free itself from Western imperialism. Since making his debut in 1982's "The Shaolin Temple," Li had become one of the preeminent faces of Kung Fu movies, along with Jackie Chan, but after more than 20 years of kicking tail on the big screen, Li wanted "Fearless" to be his last martial arts movie. Though he would return in 2011 and star in "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," at the time he announced his retirement, "Fearless" had marked the pinnacle of Li's career as a wushu movie star.

As he explained to Cinema Blend in 2006, the film takes viewers through the three levels of wushu: (1) the use of physical skill to defeat your opponents; (2) the use of knowledge and cerebral strategy to stop your opponent before it reaches the point of physical contact; (3) the use of honor, beliefs, and love to turn your enemy into your friend. "I put everything in the film," Li told said. "That's why I say this is my last wushu movie." But before the "Romeo Must Die" star could officially give his farewell, an incident on set almost prematurely faded him to black.

Jet Li's fall

In one of the early scenes in "Fearless," Jet Li's Huo Yuanjia faces off against Zhao Jian (Ma Zhongxuan), a childhood bully and rival. The fight commences atop a wooden tower; Huo wins the match by accidentally knocking Zhao Jian off the platform. Zhao Jian crashes face-first into the concrete, gets up angry in defeat, and storms away without showing any signs of injury. He's still alive? was my first thought when I first saw the scene. There's no way a human being could survive that drop ... or so I thought. As it turns out, Jet Li and a stuntman actually fell from that same tower during production.

Ronny Yu, the director of "Fearless," explained what went wrong during that sequence to China Daily (via First, he said everyone on set was scared to fight Li, who wanted all the fighting sequences to be as real as possible. Yu choreographed everything, used wirework, and placed mattresses at the bottom of the towers for safety. Still, none of that helped. "Once the camera started rolling [the stuntman] wanted to do it quick, rather than do 10 moves," Yu explained. "He just pushed [Li] and they both fell." Li and the stuntman missed the mattresses. "Luckily, it was grassland and soft mud, so Jet probably just got a bruised bum," Yu surmised. If it was only a bruised derrière, it would become just one of many injuries the acclaimed martial artist suffered on set.

'My older injuries bother me all the time'

While "Fearless" may have been perfect in a thematic sense to serve as Jet Li's final kung fu movie, nagging injuries also played a role in his retirement plans. "My older injuries bother me all the time," he told China Daily in 2006. Ironically, Li decided to transition into movies after a knee injury ended his competitive wushu career. But making kung fu movies proved to be just as taxing on his body as real-life combat. According to the Chicago Tribune, Li spent 60 of the 90 shooting days on "Fearless" completing fighting scenes. By the time "Fearless" hit theaters, Li was 43 years old and had tried to retire many times, but he had been a faithful Buddhist since 1997 and many masters and high monks talked him out of retiring. 

He developed serious spinal and leg ailments due to on-set injuries. In 2013, the actor disclosed that he has a heart condition and hyperthyroidism on top of his nagging movie career injuries. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Li said his doctor told him that he could either continue a career as an action movie star "or spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair." Li had previously talked about the risks that come with starring in action and kung fu movies as well as his relationship with other actors and stuntmen. "They never say I hurt them," Li told China Daily. "They always say, 'I'm OK. I'm fine.' They want to make another movie again. Martial artists get hurt all the time, but they don't say, 'I got to go home, don't call me.' They all put on these oils to fix it behind the scenes. Everybody hurts each other."