Lemon Face/Lion Face: Jet Li
Did your house have a preferred martial arts actor? Were you a Jackie Chan household, or was it Chuck Norris or bust? Somewhere around 2000, my family stumbled upon Jet Li's foray into American productions, and he became the undisputed badass on our entertainment system. It would be years before I went through his Hong Kong back catalog and got a serious kick out of the Once Upon a Time in China series, Fist of Legend, and Tai-Chi Master, but his first few years as a leading man in Hollywood were productive to say the least. Li quickly demonstrated to audiences with his fierce gaze and supersonic limbs that he could be as enigmatic as the Man with No Name and as unstoppable as the Terminator.
In 2005, Li headlined a UK production titled Danny the Dog, which was shot in 2003 and eventually released in the U.S. as Unleashed. Directed by future Incredible Hulk sufferer Louis Leterrier and written by Luc Besson, it was a dreary looking film, shot largely around Glasgow, Scotland with a drained out aesthetic, frenetic editing, and a surprisingly emotional plot for an action slug-fest. Li stars as Danny, a man who was abducted as a small child and raised effectively like a vicious attack dog--complete with collar, command words, and years of physical abuse--by a repugnant mobster, played with greasy gravitas by Bob Hoskins. This is a great setup for Li, whose martial arts up to this point always had the reputation of sleek and precise choreography. In this film, he launches himself at opponents wildly, beating blindly at their forms, performing leaps onto their backs for haphazard takedowns...and all the while, his eyes are the size of dinner plates, and his blood is visibly boiling. This was a new role for Li, and it was exciting to see what he would do.
Unexpectedly, the film shifts when Hoskins' criminal enterprise is attacked, and Danny is left for dead and takes shelter with a kind older man and his daughter, played by Morgan Freeman and Kerry Condon. Knowing nothing of his brutality or his tragic backstory, they welcome him into their family and teach him love, and peace. There's the most conspicuous of montages, with Li and Freeman joking around and shopping for produce and playing the piano, and a first-time viewer might think this bloody action film has shifted completely into a teary-eyed family melodrama. Of course, things never work out as easily as that, and when the mob arrives to take back their "dog," Li eventually springs into a third-act frenzy that involves a rescue, a test of his newfound morality and agency, and...it's just a really dang good movie, folks.
It's hard to pinpoint the moment in the film that convinced me that Jet Li is a supremely gifted actor who hasn't been given a meaty enough role since. It's difficult because the character affords him such a range of things to convey. The quiet moments of the film give Li time to build on the dog concept with a jittery sense of curiosity to his movement, desperation and hunger lingering behind a vacant stare. It's such a subtle thing, how just like a mistreated puppy there always seems to be an implied cry for approval and permission to his every choice, and fear of anything unknown. On the other side of the film, Li keeps up with Condon and Freeman in pages of dialogue as a scary facsimile of a five year old child trapped in a grown man's body. He repeats everything he hears, absorbing it as a lesson. There's an expectancy and urgency to his voice, in that way small children take every conversation as seriously as if it were heart surgery. Take it from me, it's really hard for a grown man to properly perform the unfiltered joy a child has upon experiencing mundane things for the first time.
And if there's one thing that fascinated me, it's that as Danny the dog, Jet Li embodied a creature without any knowledge of shame, standing slack and ignoring blood dripping down his face, watching helplessly as all his decisions get made for him. As Danny the person, shame comes all too easily and his eyes dart away and he mumbles, uncertain. As the dog, his master would either be content or furious, and it didn't really matter to Danny until he suffered for it. As a person, he worries about the people he values, their opinions, and if he's doing things incorrectly. He's learned to internalize.
Jet Li might be known for demonstrating fantastical things done with the human body, but in Danny the Dog, he actually was tasked with showing a person evolve mentally and emotionally all the way from rock bottom. Now, while other action stars have had this arc before (see Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 or Kurt Russell in Soldier), they also got to portray rock bottom as a complete blank slate with no visible feelings. Li, on the other hand, had to start with the open book of visual truth and emotion of a dog. Seriously, look into the eyes of a dog and try really hard not to spot some kind of emotion. That's the look Li succeeded to convey.