Jet Li Takes a Villainous Turn in 'The Mummy 3'

It's not easy being mean. Just ask Jet Li. While he was playing the title villain in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, he was having so much fun, he couldn't get the grin off his face.

Li was especially tickled to be sharing an epic sword battle with his longtime friend Michelle Yeoh, who was cast as a double-crossing witch. Set against the backdrop of the Tian Mo desert, the battle is the first time Li and Yeoh have been on opposing sides of a film fight.

"I've been waiting for many, many years to beat up Michelle," Li says with a laugh. "Really, I think the most difficult thing about working with Michelle is being on set and trying to stop a smile because, you know, when we look at each other, I always smile."

Li made his Hollywood debut as a bad guy in "Lethal Weapon 4" but, since then, he's primarily played heroes in actioners like "Kiss of the Dragon," "Romeo Must Die", and "Unleashed."

With Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third chapter in the $800 million-grossing Mummy series, Li gets the rare chance to stretch. "I think for an actor, it's always fun to play different kinds of roles," says the Singapore resident. "I play the good guys for many, many movies…and the good guys always have a lot of responsibility. They have to take care of their family, wife, children, dog, neighbors.

"The bad guy is much easier and much more fun to play because you don't need to think about anything, except, `I like that girl. Okay, I'll take her.' The Mummy is very selfish but he's also very straight forward.

In the film, Li portrays a fierce Chinese warrior who's hellbent on world domination, at least until he's cursed into suspended animation by a very peeved sorceress (Yeoh). Fast asleep for centuries, the Emperor wakes up with his ambition intact. But before he can reign supreme, he has to locate the fabled Shangri-la and drink from the pool of eternal life.

If he manages that trick, he'll be able to raise 10,000 warriors who have lain forgotten for eons, entombed in clay as a vast, silent terra cotta army. Of course, the film's heroes - Rick (Brendan Fraser), Evy (Maria Bello), and Alex O'Connell (Luke Ford) - have other plans. Their mission is to try and stop the savage sleepyhead from unwrapping his evil attacks.

Initially, Li was wary of starring in a sequel, even if it was directed by his old pal Rob Cohen .

"Usually, you see movies and the first one is great and the second one is okay. Usually part three is worse, right? Those [kinds of movies] can finish your career. But I thought this `Mummy' is still exciting because new location, new story, new things."

Some of the film's newness has not pleased Li's older Chinese fans who are wary of seeing their man take a walk on the dark side. "The audiences in China, they sometimes mix up [fact and fiction]," notes Li. "With this movie, they say, ` Why Jet Li is the bad guy? Why? Why? Why?' They ask that because they don't realize that it's just a case of an actor doing something different."

For the Beijing-born Li, who began studying martial arts when he was eight years old, performing the complicated fight scenes were a snap.

"It's not very difficult to fight," he says. "The difficult part of this movie was, maybe, the costume. It's a good-looking but very heavy, more than 40 pounds. But it only takes two days to shot the action sequence [with Michelle], which is not so long. It's not like a Chinese movie, where we shoot the movie in 20 days and fight every day.

"Michelle and I were, like, `We want some more [of this fight]' and they just said to us: `Mummy 4.' "

To hear the 45-year-old Li tell it, his days as a fighter are coming to a close. Since "Fearless" in 2006, Li has sworn off martial arts movies. (He considers the recent "Forbidden Kingdom" with Jackie Chan a family film, which he shot simply so his eight-year-old daughter Jane could finally see a movie starring her Dad.)

"I think that with `Fearless,' I tell everything I want to say," he notes. "It had why people need to learn martial arts, why we take revenge, how one's true enemy is sometimes ones' self. So I tell all I believe in that movie. Since then I just take movies like they're my job. This is why this year I turned down all the movies I don't want to make."

With the exception of the time he spent filming Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Li has devoted the last year to his One Foundation Project, which he organized after experiencing the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami first hand.

"At the moment, I'm focused on my third career," says Li. "I believe the first career was is in martial arts. I spent 10 years learning martial arts. Then I had a second career for 28 years making martial arts movies. Now I turn my career to charity. I spend a lot of time studying how to do the right things. I want to pay back the world."

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