Most major martial arts actors, like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen or Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, have often adopted a very hands-on approach in the creative process by action-directing and/or directing, and even sometimes writing, the films they starred in. Jet Li on the other hand has mostly stuck to starring, except in the case of Born To Defense, which he directed, choreographed and starred in in 1986, after The Shaolin Temple (1982) made him an overnight sensation.
In the film, Li (looking like he’s barely out of puberty) plays Jet, a World War II hero who comes homes only to find American soldiers bullying his people. After they destroy his rickshaw, he finds himself penniless and agrees to serve as a sparring partner, or rather glorified punching-bag, for the soldiers. Things escalate when a towering American (Kurt Roland Peterson) challenges Jet, to destructive results. As you can see from this brief synopsis, Born To Defense doesn’t have much of a plot. After an introductory war scene, and a few minutes dedicated to Jet’s cautiously optimistic homecoming, the film devolves into a repetitive succession of scenes featuring either Jet fighting an American, or Americans abusing Jet and his friends.
It’s a very violent and gloomy film, which coupled to its cheesy simplism makes for a very disheartening spectacle. All the American soldiers are walking caricatures set against Jet Li’s saintly character, which he plays with wide-eyed earnestness and none of the impressive screen presence he would later display. As a choreographer however, he acquits himself much better, staging down-to-earth, bone-crunching, english boxing-inspired fights which he executes with all the awe-inspiring speed and precision of his prime. But that is the only redeeming feature in a film that is both cheesy and bitter, a bad combination indeed.
Long Story Short : Simplistic and repetitive, cheesy and sour, Born To Defense is a thoroughly misguided film, though its brutal and impressive fights do make one wish Jet Li would come back to choreographing. *1/2