Co-written by The Fifth Element scribe and director Luc Besson, Kiss Of The Dragon shares that film’s desire to transcend the action movie-by-numbers genre. Ironically, there is very little in the way of novelty in this exciting but bleak and formulaic thriller. The opening Paris hotel scenes are genuinely tense, and the pace of the film very rarely flags during its brief, frenetic duration, but the sense that it has all been done before is inescapable. Jet Li is the outstanding feature of the film, putting in an oddly memorable performance as the Chinese policeman Liu Jian, sent to France to protect a fellow countryman who barely survives the title credits. Liu is a haunted, enigmatic individual who lingers in the memory long after other elements of the film fade. Unlike the genial acrobatics of Jackie Chan, Li’s moves have a genuinely visceral and dangerous decisiveness about them.
Bridget Fonda, evidently keen to flex her thespian muscles as the emotionally damaged junkie hooker Jessica, is too often out of her depth, and unaided by an overblown script. An utter lack of chemistry between Li and Fonda interrogates the need for an obligatory love interest, and their romance does little beyond provide unwelcome lulls between martial arts set pieces. Still, on the evidence of Li’s attempt to play a romantic lead in The Legend II, he has been well advised to keep his softer side under wraps in the love scenes for Kiss Of The Dragon and Romeo Must Die. The sadistic and corrupt police inspector Jean-Pierre Richard, played by Tchéky Karyo, is a histrionic but generally plausible villain with a range of undistinguished flunkies to act as cannon fodder. Richard’s abduction of Jessica’s daughter is presumably for blackmailing purposes and serves as the spurious pretence for Liu and Jessica’s partnership, but is essentially as opaque as many other plot points.
As expected, the electrifying fight scenes deliver the goods, particularly an extraordinary sequence in which a hotel laundry chute becomes a lethal furnace. The constant threat of genuinely sadistic violence begins to grate, however, and the final dispensing of the key villain by the titular kiss of the dragon, revealed rather late in the day to be a lethal martial arts move, is preposterous. Diverting popcorn entertainment, this film is superior to the 2002 Li vehicle The One, a similarly incoherent but far less compelling film.
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If nothing else, Kiss Of The Dragon indicates that French cinema is capable of endangering its status as an anti-Hollywood powerhouse on occasions.