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Combining action and artistry

The high-energy film, "Cradle 2 the Grave," which hits the town today, showcases Jet Li's fast-paced martial arts skills. But unlike the movies with similar themes, this one is serious.


IT WAS on a hot spring day, near a row of run-down warehouses and a railroad track that one caught up with the Chinese action superstar Jet Li who is starring in the film, "Cradle 2 the Grave".

The setting on the outskirts of Los Angeles brings up images of stolen goods, criminal plots and police bust-ups and could be in any of Li's recent films. But the illusion only lasts until one enters the spacious new sound stage at Barwick Studios, where filmmakers, cast and crew are hard at work on the film's creation.

A high-energy action film, "Cradle" showcases Li's fast-paced martial arts skills in a hip-hop L.A. setting. It is the latest project to come out of his collaboration with producer Joel Silver, who masterminded the sci-fi hit, "The Matrix," as well as the "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" franchises.

The film also reunites Li with L.A. rapper DMX and director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who both worked on earlier Silver projects, "Romeo Must Die" and "Exit Wounds".

Li describes "Cradle" simply as ``bigger'' than the earlier films. He also stresses these films are unlike other recent martial arts films set in America like "Rush Hour" with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, that play up the buddy element.

``This is a different kind of action film because it is not a comedy,'' Li says. ``It's quite serious.''

The film's storyline revolves round a diamond heist and the kidnapping of the daughter of an L.A. gangster named Fait (played by DMX). In order to rescue her, Fait forms an unlikely partnership with Li's character, Su, a Taiwanese investigator who is hot on the trail of his corrupt former partner. The film also co-stars Kelly Hu and Gabrielle Union, as well as Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold, who provide comic relief as a kidnapper and arms' dealer respectively.

Filmed on location in L.A., "Cradle" started production on March 11. The Hawaiian-born Mark Dacascos, a former Kung Fu master and kickboxing champion, who plays the kidnappers' ringleader, went through an unusual casting process for the part. Li fans were invited to vote on their choice of actor in an interactive survey via the star's official web site and Dacascos, who recently got attention for his part in a European action thriller, "The Brotherhood of the Wolf," came out the winner. With cinematographer-turned-director Bartkowiak at the helm, the two actors repeat the sequence more than a dozen times during the morning session, offering different camera angles and making small adjustments to the choreography.

``We tried to figure out what kind of martial arts sequences to give the characters and what kind of movement and style can help them,'' Li said about the planning and choreography that go into the sequences. ``If you use it right in martial arts films, fighting can help the character and the story. It's much better story-telling.'' He began training in martial arts at the age of eight and when he turned to acting at 17, he had already mastered the ancient Chinese martial arts, called Wushu. Always at Li's side on set is his long-time choreographer, Corey Yuen, who is also a veteran Hong Kong film director. The two worked on six films in Asia and most recently on "Romeo Must Die", and use a combination of fighting and wire work techniques that have become Li trademarks.

``I've always worked with very good martial arts choreographers — or martial arts directors as we like to call them,'' Li said. ``We are like a team, like a family.''

In his first studio-starring role in "Romeo Must Die", about the war between African, American and Chinese gangs in Oakland in northern California, Li's traditional fight techniques were combined with elaborate computer-generated and on-camera effects. But in "Cradle... " producer Silver says, the goal was to showcase Li's own skills.

``One of the most exciting things about working with Jet is that he does all the fighting himself," says Silver, ``which makes sequences completely authentic, and the audience knows that. He is always looking for something new to make the fights more exciting and original.''

Another key sequence shot at the Los Alamitos military airfield south of L.A., contains elaborate effects. The scene shows a helicopter crashing into a warehouse and Li fighting inside an eight-foot ring of fire.

The sequence took five weeks to complete — including second unit work — with filmmakers taking extensive safety precautions and constantly dousing Li with water during takes.

To keep fighting fit Li, who now lives in L.A. with his wife and daughter, says he likes to play sports rather than work out at a gym.

His favourite activity is tennis but he also admits to being a couch sports fan. On the set, from the first assistant director to the make-up artist, everyone talks about Li's humility and determined professionalism.

After his English-language debut in 1998 in "Lethal Weapon Four" with director-producer Richard Donner, Li went on to starring roles in the Revolution Studios production "The One" and "Kiss of the Dragon", which he co-produced with Luc Besson.

As his success as an actor grows around the world, Li says he sees a future for himself continuing to produce films. In China he has produced films since 1992. In the U.S., Li will next co-produce a series pilot called "Invincible" with Mel Gibson's Icon Productions.

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