Jet Li

Boldly kicking ass like no ass has been kicked before, "Kiss of the Dragon" is a slick, straight-ahead action-thriller that marks a small step back and two bounding leaps forward for toplined Jet Li.

Boldly kicking ass like no ass has been kicked before, “Kiss of the Dragon” is a slick, straight-ahead action-thriller that marks a small step back and two bounding leaps forward for toplined Jet Li. Pic overall seems rather conventional, even retrograde, when compared to the genre-scrambling, crossover-appealing “Romeo Must Die,” Li’s only previous English-lingo star vehicle. But “Dragon” is more consistently exciting as a rock-the-house, shoot-the-works adventure opus, loaded with fight scenes that rank with the classic rough stuff of “Enter the Dragon,” “The Legend of Drunken Master” and Li’s own “Fist of Legend.” Just as important, the French-U.S. co-production underscores Li’s increasing ease and confidence working in English, which likely will enhance pic’s appeal to mainstream domestic auds. Foreign sales and homevid biz should be super.

Co-produced and co-written (with “The Fifth Element” collaborator Robert Mark Kamen) by Luc Besson, “Dragon” is every bit as custom-tailored as you would expect of a project based on an original story by its star. Li plays Liu Juan, a crack Chinese government agent who’s sent on his first trip to France as an assistant to Paris undercover cops. Hard-boiled flic Jean-Pierre Richard (Tcheky Karyo), head of a police surveillance team, graciously greets Liu as a comrade in arms while the team keeps tabs on Chinese drug smugglers in a deluxe Paris hotel. Indeed, Richard even coins a nickname — Johnny — for his Chinese associate.

In no time at all, however, Richard reveals his true colors when he arranges for a drug-addled hooker to slay the chief Chinese malefactor. Worse, he frames “Johnny” for the crime, then tries to permanently silence the Chinese agent.

Murder attempt leads to the first razzle-dazzle sequence of hand-to-hand combat. Neophyte helmer Chris Nahon and vet action director Cory Yuen emphasize old-fashioned, street-fighting ferocity, not high-tech, computer-improved balletics. As a result, pic should greatly please purists who want their kung-foolishness served straight up — i.e., without wire work — in traditionally two-fisted, fleet-footed fashion.

Liu manages to incapacitate or exterminate anyone who blocks his exit route from the hotel. Once on the mean streets of Paris, however, our hero is a stranger in a strange land, unable to trust anyone but Uncle Tai (Burt Kwouk), his initial Paris contact. To prove his innocence, he requires the corroborating testimony of an innocent bystander at the murder scene: Jessica (Bridget Fonda), another dope-addicted prostitute — from North Dakota, no less! — controlled by Richard. Fortuitously, Jessica just happens to ply her trade in front of the food store operated by Uncle Tai. Unfortunately, she’s exceedingly reluctant to help Liu.

Despite some disorienting fuzziness during pic’s opening minutes, the plot is perfectly adequate to bridge the gaps between the spectacular fight scenes, which appear almost as frequently as production numbers in “Singin’ in the Rain.” At least two of the show-stopping interludes — a battle royal aboard a tourist boat, a free-for-all inside Uncle Tai’s shop — are so masterfully sensational, they elicited spontaneous applause during at least one preview screening.

But the real piece de resistance is the terrifically sustained climax, which has Liu — armed only with his wits, his kung-fu process and a cache of acupuncture needles — doing more damage to the occupants of a police station than anyone since Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would be back in “The Terminator.” Our hero simply strolls into the building, takes on what appears to be half the cops in greater metropolitan Paris and ultimately goes one-on-one with the dastardly Richard. Hugely satisfying finale provides explanation for the title.

Jet Li is so fast and furious that, even when he demolishes an entire roomful of karate-trained cops, it’s ridiculously easy to suspend disbelief and go with the flow. Fonda’s performance is too far over the top but she isn’t on screen long enough to do serious damage. First-rate production values include Marco Cave’s razor-sharp editing and Craig Armstrong’s aptly punctuating musical score.

Movie buffs may be amused by casting of Karyo, who was the heroine’s trainer in producer Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” and Fonda, who played the heroine in latter pic’s Americanized remake, “Point of No Return.” Also worth noting is presence of Burt Kwouk, looking far more dignified and world-weary than he did when he served as sparring partner for Peter Sellers in the “Pink Panther” movies. Which, of course, makes one wonder what Inspector Clouseau would have ever made of Liu Juan.

Kiss of the Dragon

France-U.S.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Europa Corp. production in association with Quality Growth Intl., Current & Immortal Entertainment and Canal Plus. Produced by Luc Besson, Jet Li, Steven Chasman, Happy Walters. Co-producer, Bernard Grenet. Directed by Chris Nahon. Screenplay, Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen, based on a story by Jet Li.

Crew

Camera (color, Technovision widescreen), Thierry Arbogast; editor, Marco Cave; music, Craig Armstrong; production designer, Jacques Bufnoir; costume designers, Pierre Bechir, Annie Thiellement; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Vincent Tulli; action director, Cory Yuen; assistant directors, Jacques Eberhard, Gilles Bannier, Alfred Lot, Gerard Pujolar; second unit camera, Nicolas Herdit, Bruno Privat, Stephane Azouze; casting, Max Morel, Helene Cheruy. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace 24, Houston, June 28, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Liu Jiuan - Jet Li Jessica - Bridget Fonda Jean-Pierre Richard - Tcheky Karyo Aja - Laurence Ashley Uncle Tai - Burt Kwouk Twin No. 1 - Cyril Raffaelli Twin No. 2 - Didier Azoulay Max - John Forgeham Lupo - Max Ryan
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