Martial arts superstar Jet Li left a prolific and legendary career in Hong Kong cinema to come to America and try his hand at blockbusters. After a sinister turn as the baddie in "Lethal Weapon 4," Li quickly turned around and gave birth to the putrid, Joel Silver produced, "Romeo Must Die." Seeking either a brief rest from the bloated American cinema work ethic, or leaping at a chance to take greater control of his films (Li produces and gets a story credit on "Kiss"), Li has teamed up with Parisian cinema mastermind Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element," "La Femme Nikita") to unleash "Kiss Of The Dragon" (IMDb listing). It's arguably Li's best English-language picture, but more important than that, it is the lone film to blast the tight lid of mediocrity off the barrel of summer 2001 movies.
Liu Jian (Jet Li) is a Beijing cop who has come to Paris to help a French Detective (Tcheky Karyo, "La Femme Nikita") stop a drug ring that originated in China. Jian soon learns that his involvement was nothing more than to be a patsy for the evil detective to murder a high profile suspect. Jian escapes peril through the use of his dazzling martial arts skills, and finds himself in great danger as the Detective and his cronies rummage through Paris looking for him. A lone witness, a prostitute named Jessica (Bridget Fonda), is the only way Jian can clear his name.
"Kiss Of The Dragon" is actually only written and produced by Besson, but one would never know that from looking at the final product. Bursting at the seams with that chic European vibe, and shot with breathtaking clarity and precision by Besson-collaborator, and noted cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, "Kiss" is so exhilarating and fierce that I can easily forgive Jet Li's previous sins.
"Kiss" is directed by Chris Nahon, and for a former video director and newbie feature film helmer, this fresh talent makes quite a vivid impression. Forgoing typical reliance on special effects and "wire-fu," Nahon and Li have taken great care to leave the action set pieces as bare bones as possible. Only relying on frenzied street fighting, you can feel every last punch in your gut. The fists fly fast and hard, and for the first time in a long time, very little of the on-screen action seems to be tampered with or so technically precise that it's gone stale. Nahon avoids the Jackie Chan syndrome of over-choreographing the fights, and trusts Li and the stunt team to sell the action without too much overt staging. The effect is blissful and free. It makes the screen pop and gives needed CPR to the martial arts genre of film.
Saddled with a large amount of English-language dialog, Jet Li does get in over his head just a little bit. The actor still doesn't seem to have the vernacular down just yet, but that hardly matters in a film like "Kiss Of The Dragon." Li is real and charming in the picture, especially his scenes with co-star Bridget Fonda, who comes off equally as likable. Nevertheless, both Besson and Nahon know exactly what they have in Li, and they take his magnetic skills, persona, and silent brood and inflate them to almost Clint Eastwood-style iconography. Li, dressed in mod turtlenecks and holding himself effortlessly cool, officially becomes a screen legend in "Kiss Of The Dragon" through Nahon's taut direction and Besson's reverence.
Because the film is European financed and made by Parisians, "Kiss Of The Dragon" doesn't have to abide by the set of hypocritical rules made by American studios. "Kiss" is free to roam wherever it wants, whether it be into comedy (a showstopping scene involves Li accidentally walking into a karate school, then having to fight them all off), or horrific scenes of brutality (Fonda's character gets slapped around a little too much). There are no limits placed on the production, and the free-range imaginations of Besson and Li summon up some seriously unique touches. How else can you explain Li's character being a master of acupuncture, which he uses to incapacitate his enemies with lightning-fast speed?
"Kiss Of The Dragon" is reminiscent of Besson's own "The Professional" in that the picture is able to balance comic book with John Woo and never breaks the pace. American productions can't seem to handle this type of baggage without getting desperate in the end. Having never been a big fan of Li's before, "Kiss" was a pleasure to watch. I finally see that glow in the actor that the rest of the world has been raving about for the last decade. "Kiss" is brisk, breezy, and uproarious fun, and a film that should not be missed.
Filmfodder Grade: A