starring Jet Li, Bridget Fonda, Tcheky Karyo, Ric Young
screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
directed by Chris Nahon
by Walter Chaw There are not ten consecutive minutes of Kiss of the Dragon that make sense and there are at least three completely disconnected scenes, but the real litmus test occurs about thirty minutes into the festivities, whereupon Jet Li kicks a billiard ball into the forehead of a Jim Broadbent-esque bad guy. Coming at the end of much mayhem, that's where you either start playing pool with Kiss of the Dragon or leave the parlor altogether. It's also an event that happens before Bridget Fonda has had a chance to do the Cybill Shepherd enjoyment-vortex schtick she's been perfecting for a decade or so. To her credit, she's getting pretty damned good at it, though she's still no Helen Hunt.
The plot of Kiss of the Dragon is the classic Jackie Chan/Police Story gambit of a Beijing supercop being lent to some backwards and racist first-world huckleberry government to protect/avenge some Chinese national then being framed for said national's lack of protection/demise. The inclusion of Bridget Fonda in a Luc Besson produced/co-scripted feature indicates the classic Besson plot of a leggy, mini-skirted, ex-junkie ingénue running around in stiletto heels amidst explosions and flying bullets. A scene in a laundry chute involving fireballs à la La Femme Nikita is just one of those things not really worth getting into.
For the sake of precision, Jet Li is Liu Jian, a Chinese supercop sent to France as punishment. No, just kidding. He's sent to France as punishment. No--ha ha. Okay (ha ha), he's sent to France to protect a Chinese national, who is promptly killed by an evil hooker. (The hooker with a heart of gold (Fonda) is yorking in the bathroom at the time.) Framed for the ill-doings by corrupt police inspector Jean-Pierre Richard (Tcheky Karyo), Jian finds himself battling through an endless series of biologically interesting thugs and villains while protecting Jessica the Hooker (Fonda) from Inspector Richard. (Richard happens to have Jessica's daughter hostage--don't ask, no answers.)
Jian has the extremely interesting skill of acupuncture-fu, which leads to some witty paralysis and, eventually, the dread "Kiss of the Dragon" technique that causes all the blood in your body to go to your head. Insert erectile dysfunction joke here. Anyone watching Kiss of the Dragon is doomed to disappointment if they're after the answers to such questions as, Is he just going to sit there in a hospital waiting room while the entire gendarmerie of France is looking for him? Kiss of the Dragon is a comic-book movie of brutal violence (Jet is one of the few martial artists who punches like he means it), awkward machismo dialogue, and an exceedingly bare plot progression. It's Blade without vampires--and that's a good thing (that it's like Blade; any movie is made better by the addition of vampires).
Jet Li, long more of a brooder than an actor, actually has a few moments of subtlety here, demonstrating a nice sense of comic timing in a scene in a bus-station locker row, where there's a hidden cachet of weapons, as he tries to discreetly sidle around a pair of gradually more interested cops. His moments playing off of Fonda are disasters, however, largely because Fonda is given far too much to say and explain and Jet is altogether too convincing in the role of the confused bystander. I actually felt embarrassed for Fonda when she says, "I may be stupid, but I'm not that stupid." Oh honey, if you only knew. Besson vet Karyo as the chief bad guy is vein-throbbingly magnificent. Intelligent and feral, he's over-the-top in a way that is a perfect counterpoint to Jet Li.
Generally, though, the whole film plays a great deal like an extended episode of "Iron Chef": lots of edged weapons, dead frogs, and campy dialogue. The only question with currency is whether Kiss of the Dragon dedicatedly kicks ass. Although suffering from more hyper-editing than I like, Besson protégé Chris Nahon does a pretty fair job of filming the action scenes. (Jet choreographed the action with Cory Yuen, an old HK chum of his.) Jet has a few moments in which to shine (I especially liked a bizarre fight he has with two Aryan giants amidst abandoned office cubicles, and a dojo scene that recalls a number from Jet's own Fist of Legend), and it's all agreeably non sequitous in the manner of a French deconstructionist koan on the slipperiness of meaning. In other words, Kiss of the Dragon kicks enough ass to be good, but spends too much time futilely trying to tie up a nonsensical plot--and letting Fonda do Phoebe Cates monologues--to be great.
by Bill Chambers Kiss of the Dragon is the first film affiliated with Luc Besson to be substantially supplemented on DVD. But first: The disc sports a clear, rich 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer (the bright, sharp anamorphic images of long-time Besson cinematographer Thierry Arbogast have always adapted well to DVD) and head-turning 5.1 Dolby Digital audio (that's maybe a bit too liberal with bass--the music distorts from added boom). Meanwhile, Li, Fonda, and Nahon were each recorded separately for a screen-specific commentary of some merit; Li and Nahon are soft-spoken in addition to having thick accents, so keep one finger on the rewind button, while Fonda somehow managed to make me think more highly of her performance. All three avoid reiterating the action onscreen, though Nahon does explain why the film opens on a quartet of rabbits.
Three featurettes are also included, two of them ("Jet Li--Fighting and Philosophy" and "Cory Yuen--Action Academy") in-depth looks at the film's choreography, the third an extended commercial dressed up as a making-of. (Note: Yuen's interview is dubbed.) You can also watch two of Yuen's camcorder demos of the Police Gymnasium Fight or animated storyboards/storyboard-to-film comparisons for The Laundry Chute and The Orphanage sequences. "On the Set Action" is a quick-cut montage alternating finished and behind-the-scenes footage. Six TV spots and a trailer for Kiss of the Dragon plus trailers for Behind Enemy Lines and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes round out the DVD version of one of 2001's pleasant surprises. Originally published: January 5, 2002.