“Martial arts and cinema action superstar Jet Li and visionary filmmaker Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element) join forces on Kiss of the Dragon,” trumpets the press kit for Kiss of the Dragon — and in a sense, that’s true. Besson did co-produce and co-write the screenplay. However, the direction of the film was given over to French video and commercial director Chris Nahon. So it’s not exactly a “film by Luc Besson,” but it’s nonetheless a top-notch action thriller — just one that lacks the kind of precision and depth Besson might have brought to the proceedings. The screenplay — based on a (not very) original story by Jet Li — is simplicity itself, making charges by certain critics that the film is hard to follow more than a little difficult to understand. Li plays Liu Jiaun, a top Chinese secret agent who comes to Paris to assist in the arrest of a Chinese heroin smuggler. Unfortunately, the police detective in charge of the case, Richard (Tcheky Karyo, La Femme Nikita), also happens to be the heroin dealer’s (dare I say it?) French connection. When the bust goes wrong — thanks to Richard’s machinations — the smuggler is killed by the crooked detective and the murder pinned on Liu, who must prove his innocence. As a plot, it certainly dates back to classic Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, etc.), but it’s exactly the sort of plot this kind of film requires and the screenplay manages to keep it all exciting, while cleverly sketching in the characters in such a way that they boast at least the illusion of being real people. In the case of Jet Li’s character, the script targets his strangely quiet, gentle quality — something that seems at odds with a martial-arts star, but is part of what makes Li unique. Li is so soft-spoken, so still, so unassuming that he immediately captures the viewer’s attention — and blessedly, he gets to play a role in a movie of this sort where he isn’t avenging an old score or nursing the loss of an old love or any other trite and true trauma of the genre. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, he isn’t a maverick cop, etc. He’s a top-notch agent, respected by his peers, who just happens to land in a lot of trouble through no fault of his own. The film wisely limits its clichés to the requisite fight sequences, most of which are clever and fresh, and all of which seem to recognize their inherent absurdities without turning into parody a la Steven Seagal. The movie also offers the first performance by Bridget Fonda that’s ever much impressed me. Usually, she seems little more than adequate and often just a sort of generic pretty young woman. Here, she actually distinguishes herself, in large part because she plays so well opposite Jet Li. The two have a good chemistry: Her livelier, more awkward and vulnerable character nicely complements his passivity. Li also plays well against veteran character actor Burt Kwouk (best known as Kato, Peter Sellers’ houseboy/karate nemesis in a plethora of Pink Panther movies), who has a subdued and moving role as the elderly agent who houses Liu in Paris. But where the film really scores — and what truly lifts it out of the realm of the bland action movie — is in Tcheky Karyo’s villainous Richard, probably the most impressively scripted and played bad guy since Alan Rickman in the original Die Hard. Utterly nasty, intelligent, cold-blooded and colorfully hissable — but with just a few hints at something deeper — Karyo’s Richard is everything you could want in a villain and then some. The film realizes this and affords him one of the best — and most gruesome — demises an arch criminal could wish for. Granted, he suffers from one magnificent sinking spell of stupidity as part of the plot (if you had a videotape of yourself committing murder, you’d naturally put it in an unlocked drawer with your pet tortoise instead of destroying it, right?), but logic isn’t the point of a movie like this. Kiss of the Dragon (the title refers to the niftily nasty acupuncture trick Liu ultimately performs on Richard) is exactly what it aims to be — a violent, engaging actioner. It has no deep meaning, but it’s exceptional at what it is.
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