Kiss of the Dragon
Jet Li can kill a man with just his thumb, but chopsticks are more civilized.
Jean-Claude Van Damme. He must sit around his apartment muttering, "I
spake Englich bettair zan zat Jet Li. Why won't zey luff me?" To add insult
(and salt) to injury, Kiss of the Dragon features only one actor
who speaks English better than Jean-Claude, and it still kicks
the butt of his entire body of work (except maybe Timecop). What
the silly Flem forgets is that Jet Li knows how to craft a film to his
strengths, and downplays his weaknesses. The result? Solid action and
not too much of that messy acting.
The thin story, conceived by Li himself, requires little of anyone.
Only the villain, Richard (Tcheky Karyo), has the opportunity to ham
things up, which he does with elegant restraint. Richard serves as the
corrupt police inspector in charge of destroying a heroin ring in Paris.
What he hasn't revealed to his superiors, of course, is that he also
runs that same heroin ring. The Chinese government sends over their
best man, Liu Jian (Li), to help capture the Chinese druglord assisting
Richard. A grim supercop, Liu Jian has the nice extra touch of using
acupuncture needles in addition to the mad fighting skills. Knowing
opportunity when it knocks, Richard kills his partner and frames Liu
Jian for it. This plays out very quickly, a nice change from the usual
American "framed man" stories. Within minutes of Richard's introduction,
we know what he is, so the film doesn't have to try and fool us with
the "mystery" of who is really behind all of Liu Jian's troubles.
Luckily for Liu Jian, dubbed "Johnny" by the sardonic Richard, he has
a safe house. Run by sleeper agent Uncle Tai (Burt Kwouk - Clouseau's
Cato meeting the future Kato), Liu Jian poses as a maker of shrimp chips
until he can safely deliver a videotape which will prove his innocence.
To make things even easier, the Chinese officials in Paris have hidden
emergency phones and weaponry throughout the city, just in case one
of their men gets framed for murder by a corrupt Parisian. This happens
more often than you might think, and the police have prepared for it.
Almost immediately after making contact, Liu Jian loses the tape and
all the people who believe in his innocence. Don't be misled: this loss
comes at the price of one great action sequence on a glass tourist boat.
In the words of an audience member sitting next to co-editor Mike Goodson:
"that s*** was dope!"
Along the way Liu Jian crosses paths with the requisite smackhead hooker
with a heart of gold, Jessica (Bridget Fonda). Fonda actually does something
with her role, unafraid to play a dumb character who has made some terrible
choices, while trying to maintain dignity. Her desperation (Richard
holds her young daughter hostage for reasons never quite explained)
and overall neediness balances out Li's self-sufficient loner. Once
Liu Jian realizes that Jessica witnessed the initial murder, he struggles
between his need for her to prove him innocent and his awkward empathy
for her plight.
It's a brilliant touch on Li's part, fleshed out by writers Luc Besson
and Robert Mark Kamen. Though he speaks English fairly well, Li's acting
remains stiff. And so Liu Jian himself is a man who has shut off a lot
of human emotion. Dedicated to the job, he has no family, no friends,
and no real life. The bond he forms with Jessica allows Li to showcase
the shy, unsure smile that he has mastered, but it never goes to the
point of actual affection. All of that gets shouldered by Fonda, and
Li doesn't have to get bogged down with any of that messy love stuff.
Instead, this movie does what it should: move from action setpiece to
action setpiece. Most of it flows naturally, though at a pace much slower
than we have come to expect from summer movies. The opening carefully
builds anticipation, following Liu Jian from the airport to Chinatown
to a swank hotel without offering much clue as to why he's there. When
we finally get the payoff, it's a huge relief, and refreshing that a
movie actually asks us to wait for it. In many ways, Kiss of the
Dragon hearkens back to cop thrillers the way they used to be made
in the '70's, as much about tension as action. If Clint Eastwood had
known martial arts, he might have made this movie.
Only one action sequence looks crowbarred into the plot. Clearly, Li
and the writers had an idea so fun that they just did not care that
it would stretch credibility. They were right to not care: Li takes
on at least twenty police officers in a kung fu class, and it's jaw-dropping
in its excitement.
Li has been criticized in the past for making liberal use of computer
graphics and wires to make his fighting look good. Here he and director
Chris Nahon have toned down the scale of the action, and the fights
have a raw, honest feel missing from Romeo Must Die. Though Nahon
uses a lot of quick cuts in the fights, you cannot doubt that Li is
actually doing the stuntwork. It's grim, determined, and definitely
of the Dragon may get lost in crowded cineplexes this summer. But
if you're tired of noisy effects-filled films (and even if you're not),
give this a look. Jet Li will be a major action star, and he won't be
Van Dammed trying.
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