Kiss of the Dragon

Jet Li’s previous feature Romeo Must Die was a lackluster introduction to mainstream American audiences, and even disappointed long-time fans, primarily due to its style of showing Li’s martial arts skills in short flashes, over-edited, CGI- and wire-aided. Kiss of the Dragon attempts to get back to the basics, serving up hearty portions of Li in action against a legion of evil foes with lots of gunfire and explosions. Li aficionados may no doubt be heartened, but the action as presented is strictly rote and much more bloody than balletic.

Li plays Liu Jian, a Chinese government agent sent to Paris to assist with a sensitive, top-secret mission (other details are much less clear). When things go awry and he’s forced to go on the lam.He’s pursued by French authorities led by their ruthless chief inspector Richard (Tcheky Karyo, The Patriot). Richard is your basic movie vermin, making his entrance while beating the tar out of someone during an interrogation. The sure sign that he’s evil is the odd geometrical shape of his goatee, always a dead giveaway.

In addition to having a private army of mercenaries and martial arts experts at his disposal, Richard is also running a prostitution ring on the side; as an additional evil touch his girls are strung out on heroin. One of his stable of hookers is Jessica (Bridget Fonda), a small-town farm girl from the US who’d love to blow town and beat feet back to North Dakota except for one small complication – Richard’s holding her five year old daughter hostage. Cue the hisses! In one of the film’s less improbable story developments, Liu and Jessica manage to meet and join forces against Richard and his army of thugs.

Liu is a mystical man.We know this because he wears a bracelet holster of acupuncture needles that he periodically uses to the major detriment of others. Another clue is that Liu is given to long stony looks into the middle distance. He maintains this pose regardless of the situation, and probably doesn’t have a line longer than eight words in the entire film. This taciturn demeanor is but a front, however, as it’s soon obvious why his character exists – to beat the living crap out of people.

And beat them he does.Some films have action points every ten minutes, this one has them dictated by egg timer. Over the course of the film Liu manages to confront and defeat, well – everyone, including a roomful of black belts, at least 23 people firing approximately 3,785 bullets and several hand grenades at him, and a bleached blonde tag team of opponents strung out on something a little more potent than a double cappuccino.

Luc Besson is credited as sharing the screenwriting duties, but his effort here is nothing anywhere near as complex or shaded as even The Professional or La Femme Nikita. This is strictly nunchucks by the numbers.Director Chris Nahon spares the gimmicks, going for straight carnage as Liu fractures one ulna and tibia after another. The action is rapid and the means of mayhem sometimes unique – there’s a scene where Liu does an ad-hoc riff to devise a particularly imaginative and deadly use for a #3 pool ball. But the villains that Liu defeats are little more than shooting gallery targets.

Li’s inert performance is matched by one-dimensional takes from everyone else. Karyo goes through the entire film in a sneer, as if lamenting the fact that he has no moustache to twirl. And what to make of Bridget Fonda? Her Jennifer isn’t tough enough to be interesting or plaintive enough to evoke sympathy. She mostly lets her runny mascara do the talking, and as a result her role could well have been played by a mannequin or a "mecha" on loan from A. I.

There’s no doubt that Kiss of the Dragon offers action in the form of a very high kick-to-word-of-dialog ratio, but anyone expecting much in the way of plot, character, or logic will be kicking only themselves – for buying a ticket.

– Bob Aulert