Jet Li -- one of the most popular stars in Asia rivaling Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat -- has had an impressive string of over 25 films under his belt in his two decades of kung fu prowess and strong acting turns. But after two dismal attempts at winning over American audiences with a small villain role in Lethal Weapon 4 and the horrendous Joel Silver monstrosity Romeo Must Die, it was looking pretty grim for this mighty warrior. So, Li read the e-mails from his fans, taking their compliments and complaints via his web site.
This undertaking prompted Li to construct a film that would capture the powerful imagery of his earlier masterpieces -- The Bodyguard from Beijing, High Risk, Fist of Legend, and Once Upon a Time in China I and II. Li wanted to move away from the wire work and computer graphics of such recent films as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which seemed to remove the authenticity of the art form. He instead wanted to provide American audiences with an authentic glimpse of a martial artist at work, just like the master Bruce Lee.
To help construct a compelling story, Li brought in action maestro Luc Besson to help write the screenplay from Li's original story as well as aid in the production of the film. This combination provides more hits than misses, culminating in the most successful, straight-action genre film I've seen in a very long time.
Kiss of the Dragon begins with the story of Asian supercop Johnny (Jet Li) who joins forces with nefarious, megalomaniac French cop Richard (Tchéky Karyo) to capture an Asian drug lord hiding out in Paris. When the drug lord get killed in bloody fashion by the Frenchy and his small army of bad-ass mofos, Johnny gets framed for the murder and ends up on the run. Along the way, he gets in fights with about a million bad guys while Richard and his small army shoot up the bystanders. Johnny then joins forces with one of Richard's hookers named Jessica (Bridget Fonda), rescuing Jessica's baby girl from the clutches of Richard and retrieving the evidence that will clear Johnny's name.
Hong Kong cinema has never been known strongly for its original story lines but rather for its character development. Indeed, Li is impressive in his quiet but powerful role, proving himself an authentic action star that actually sheds blood and shows more signs of exhaustion in the face of adversity.
The main flaws of the film are found in Besson's script, whose fingerprints muddy every scene, from incredible action sequences to the weak female characters. Besson has never been able to create a solid, multi-layered woman's role in any of his films. Even La Femme Nikita showed his inability in developing a compelling female character who wasn't in desperate trouble, down on her luck, and needing a strong man to help her get back on top. Bridget Fonda's hooker role who needs Johnny to help rescue her daughter is a classic example of the virgin/whore complex that obsesses Besson. Fonda's melodramatic moments are at times laughable and distracting.
Additionally, Besson draws the character of Richard as a shadow of Gary Oldman's corrupt cop character from Léon. The only saving grace is Karyo's ability to turn a very shallow villain into a multi-layered monster. Li's role also feels like an Asian version of Léon himself, and Besson stages many of the action sequences by echoing his earlier works.
The ho-hum story aside, the action sequences are amazing. Director Chris Nahon (best known for French commercials) handles the action as deft as any Peckinpah or McTiernan production, capturing Li in stunning motion. The violence meter is extremely high and even Li recommends children not see the film on his web site. I even found myself cringing, and I'm a whore for this kind of stuff.
The DVD extras include loads of interviews and outtakes -- a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff showing you how the fights were choreographed, and so on. But the commentary track, with dialogue from Nahon, Li, and Fonda, is a real oddity -- with one French, one Chinese, and one American all jabbering. Of course, it's the American that gets all the talk time -- you can't shut Bridget up! The language barriers for the other two are phenomenal. Odd.
Kick, jump, punch, and cry.
Run time: 98 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th July 2001
Box Office USA: $34.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $64.4M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Current Entertainment, Immortal Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 52
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Chris Nahon
Starring: Jet Li as Liu Jian, Bridget Fonda as Jessica Kamen, Tchéky Karyo as Insp. Richard, Max Ryan as Lupo, Ric Young as Mister Big, Burt Kwouk as Uncle Tai, Laurence Ashley as Aja, Cyril Raffaelli as Twin
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