THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Jet Li is one of the most astonishing martial arts stars in the world. After a long and ultra-successful career in Hong Kong and China, Li came to the states with two disappointing films: Lethal Weapon 4 (the franchise had run out of gas, but he was the best thing in it) and Romeo Must Die (whose fighting scenes used Matrix-style special effects that notoriously displeased his hardcore fans). Now, Li has returned to his roots with Kiss of the Dragon, a picture that mixes old-school martial artistry with the uniquely peculiar worldview of Luc Besson, whose films The Professional and La Femme Nikita are part of a new wave of French cinema.

Jet Li faces off with Bridget Fonda in Kiss of the Dragon
Li plays Liu Jian, one of the top government agents in China. He is sent to Paris to assist police official Richard (Tcheky Karyo) collar a drug smuggler who is waiting to meet his connection. The bust goes spectacularly wrong - mostly because Richard himself is the smuggler's contact - and Liu is framed for the murder of a prostitute in the process. Liu escapes with his life (barely), a surveillance tape of Richard killing the prostitute in hand. During his efforts to stop Richard, he meets Jessica (Bridget Fonda), another streetwalker who was there when things went wrong; she can back up Liu's claim of innocence. Her daughter is being held by Richard, who forces Jessica into a life filled with drug-taking and trick-pulling. This is a martial arts movie, so naturally there are numerous fight scenes on the way to the big finish. But Liu has a trick up his sleeve: he's a master of acupuncture who carries little needles around in his sleeve for added lethality.

Kiss of the Dragon was directed by Chris Nahon, but Luc Besson (who wrote the screenplay and produced) has his stamp all over the film. As in many of his other movies, there is a woman who is pulled into a dangerous life she would rather not lead. There is also the archetype of the man who can be a cold killer, but chooses to offer help and sympathy to a woman in need. There's even a scene reminiscent of the great "laundry chute" scene from La Femme Nikita (remade in America as Point of No Return and starring Bridget Fonda). Liu, seemingly trapped in a large kitchen, hides in the chute. Richard uses fire and a hand grenade to try fishing him out. Liu's reversal of the plan is as exciting, gory, and one of the most effective action scenes of the year. It is not the only one. Early on, Liu kicks a billiard ball out of its pocket and - while it hangs in mid-air - kicks it again, right into the head of a baddie.

The action is often brutal in the film, but that's the way it goes in Hong Kong-style pictures. As someone with at least a passing interest in the genre, I found the action here much more satisfying than it was in Romeo Must Die. Yes, this is tough stuff, but at least the violence isn't glamorized. The movie is careful to show the consequences of careless violence.

Plot is not generally a major consideration in this kind of production. Kiss of the Dragon has a better plot than many, though. Or maybe it just seems that way because the characters are so intriguing. I liked the interplay between the cold, distant Liu and the uncommonly optimistic Jessica. Although this sort of mismatch has been done before, it seems more stark here, again probably due to the influence of Besson. Fonda (long one of the most underrated actresses around) has a stereotypical part: the hooker with the heart of gold. She gives it a good spin anyway, making you forget that you've seen this character a million times before. As the villain, Tcheky Karyo is...well, "unhinged" is the only word that comes to mind. The actor delivers one of the most wicked, intense portrayals of evil that I have ever seen in a popcorn action flick.

Li himself has relatively few lines of dialogue. He mostly delivers smoldering looks before kicking butt. Of course, that's the way it should be. Like many of the best good guys, he speaks softly and delivers a deadly punch. In particular, I enjoyed the way he uses whatever is handy as a weapon, including a hot clothes iron which is delivered directly to the face of his opponent. (My friend Paul Terse is a martial arts instructor as well as a film fan. His expert analysis of the movie's action scenes is a compelling read. You can find his review at his Mushin Maru-ryu website.)

Kiss of the Dragon is a smart showcase for Jet Li. It takes the best parts of the free-for-all Hong Kong action style and combines them with the kind of offbeat characterization Besson is famous for. It ain't art, but it sure is a good time for anyone who enjoys the occasional bit of bone-crunching entertainment.

( out of four)

Kiss of the Dragon is rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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