Kiss of the Dragon (2001)

kiss-of-the-dragonLike most American audiences, I was introduced to Jet Li in “Lethal Weapon 4” where he stole the show from every cast member in the final film of the franchise as the vicious Wah Sing Ku who engages in a battle with Riggs and Murtaugh at the end of the movie. And like every other American after the movie I sought out Li’s previous works and was pretty much under whelmed. The man’s past works range from mediocre to plain idiotic and America didn’t do much for him with movies like “The One,” “Cradle 2 The Grave,” and “Romeo Must Die” all of which were packed with CGI and hip hop references stifling Li’s potential. When allowed to work on his own terms though, Li pulled off some rather incredible pieces of martial arts cinema, one of which is “Kiss of the Dragon.”

Though there are the obvious allusions to Bruce Lee added for the intent to pass Li off as his successor, Chris Nahon’s action thriller is one of Li’s best action efforts with none other than Luc Besson as a screenwriter. And as we’ve seen before, nine times out of ten when Besson is working with someone he brings the best out of them. Li is at his top here with Besson as writer playing cop Liu Jian, an undercover agent who lives his life on the run and seeks not to draw attention to himself. Unfortunately Liu is blamed for the murder of a local mob boss and flees hiding out at the local Asian restaurant owned by his friend. With apparent shades of “Leon: The Professional,” Liu is a man without a purpose who finds one when a young woman comes knocking at his door.

Jessica is a victim of naiveté, tricked in to coming to Paris by a sly Parisian in the form of Jean Pierre Richard who happens to be a corrupt officer who tricks Jessica in to committing murder and also manages to set Liu up as the fall man. The two meet eventually as he takes pity on Jessica, a down on her luck prostitute working to re-claim her estranged daughter being held by Richard. Fate crashes down his doors as he looks to clear his name, and also sets out to find Jessica’s daughter. Like many fans of Li, I was disappointed that a man many claimed to be such an amazing martial artist was so reliant on CGI and wire work to deliver his action scenes and “Kiss of the Dragon” is a definite sign of change as Li is able to rely on his own skills to stage some incredible action sequences, and Nahon keeps up with him as best as he can.

The story of Liu is a fascinating one and Li proves he can do more than kick people around playing this sympathetic officer looking only to go about his business and find a way out of his predicament. Used to apparently pick up the slack, Bridget Fonda is the tortured Jessica who interrupts Liu’s life attempting to befriend him, but signals her pleading for his help that he can not turn down once he gets a full view of what her life is like. Fonda’s character works well off of Li providing a more tragic definition to his mission and also proving to serve as a great sidekick. But what’s great about this film is that Nahon steps back and allows Li to do his work and he pulls off a hell of a show.

From battling an entire martial arts class, to rumbling with two brothers in an office, Li is just lightning quick and delivers on the potential he promised audiences when he debuted in “Lethal Weapon 4.” While Tchéky Karyo’s performance is grossly over-the-top, he doesn’t bog down Li and Fonda’s dichotomy and his ultimate fate is gruesome. There’s also the hip hop score that sticks out like a sore thumb added to apparently appeal more to domestic movie-goers but clashes with the overall tone of the film. Nevertheless Besson’s touch can be felt here and Li makes good on his promise of being a great action star further defining his mark in Besson’s masterpiece “Danny the Dog.” Overall it’s not Li’s best what with the awkward score and Karyo’s cartoonish performance, but it’s a return to form for Li who dropped all the hip hop crap and was allowed to put his raw skills on display in a damn fine action film courtesy of Luc Besson.