Jet Li, still better known for his Hong Kong pictures, desperately wants to become an international action star, though, as his latest effort, Kiss of the Dragon, shows he has a long way to go, both as an actor and screen presence. Aiming to combine the three different styles that currently define actioners, the Honk Kong, the American, and to a lesser extent the French, new picture, which is produced and co-written by Luc Besson, is a trashy flick, made of bits and pieces (almost leftovers) of numerous generic items.
A disappointing follow-up to Li's last year's breakout picture, Romeo Must Die, Kiss offers few rewards for the star's and genre's aficionados. Fox should expect moderate returns in quick theatrical playout domestically, with international and ancillary markets looming larger.
The film world does need a young, vibrant action star: Vet heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are settling into an unkind middle age, Jackie Chan is rapidly moving into the direction of comedy-action (Rush Hour and the upcoming sequel, Rush Hour 2), Chow Yun-Fat is not doing anymore the John Woo's type of actioners, and it remains to be seen what will be Keanu Reeves's fate after the next Matrix pictures are released.
Light on his feet, and faster and nastier than Bruce Lee (Li's role model), Li lacks the charismatic presence and graceful movement of his Asian colleagues, and his face isn't expressive enough, despite admiration from the director and cameraman, who shower him with numerous close-ups. Moreover, though his English has improved, Li can't act much, which means that the dialogue is sparse, giving the thesp no more than one or two sentences at a time. What should be developed by producers of Li's future actioners are the seeds of an appealing screen image, based on a set of contradictory traits: He can appear shy and strong, low-key yet dangerous at the same time.
Li plays Liu Jiuan, China's top government agent, who arrives in Paris from Shanghai to carry out a top-secret mission. He's supposed to assist an unorthodox (to say the least) French police officer, Richard (Tcheky Karyo), but the secret mission goes horribly wrong, when Richard and his nasty army betray him. Unfortunately, there are witnesses to the vicious murders that take place in a hotel suite. Prominent among them is Jessica (Bridget Fonda), an American hooker forced into prostitution and drugs by Richard, who keeps her only daughter as hostage.
The meager script, such as it is, is not ashamed to use the overly familiar subplot of an incriminating tape, which recorded the proceedings. Going from one hand to another, the cassette provides the major impetus for a rudimentary story, basically a loosely-held string of big action set-pieces. The film's only variability is its colorful sites, in which Li demonstrates his considerable martial arts, acrobatic skills (and even acupuncture). They include a restaurant, where Liu's decent uncle works (and gets killed), a hotel laundromat that provides some unusual props, and an orphanage, where Jessica's daughter is believed to be held captive.
Endlessly Abused, beaten, and forced to use intravenous drugs, Jessica is the kind of role that will offend any viewer, not just feminist or female patrons. This sleazy role must have been assigned to Fonda based on her link to Besson, who helmed La Femme Nikita, whose remade American version, Point of No Return, starred Fonda.
Patchwork as its plot was, Romeo Must Die enjoyed the benefits of several dazzling martial arts sequences, inventive hip-hop score and kung fu, neo-noirish visuals, a semblance of romance with singer Aaliyah–and the overall gloss of a Joel Silver production, all of which are missing from Kiss of the Dragon. With the exception of a few scenes, the movie is so poorly directed (and so wretchedly edited), that it even fails to take advantage of its Parisian locales and function as a fun action-travelogue.
Pro co: Europa Corp. production, in association with Quality Growth International, Current & Immortal Entertainment, and Canal+
US dist: Fox
Prods: Luc Besson, Jet Li, Steven Chasman, Happy Walters
Scr: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Cinematographer: Thierry Arbogast
Pro des: Jacques Bufnoir
Ed: Narco Cave
Music: Craig Armstrong
Jet Li, Bridget Fonda, Tcheky Karyo, Burt Kwouk