FROM NOW ON, THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE A JET LI MOVIE! After his limited debut as the villain in "Lethal Weapon 4" and his disappointing follow-up in "Romeo Must Die", "Kiss of the Dragon" is probably the 'best of the West' in terms of Hollywood starring vehicles for the veteran martial arts master. In addition, "Kiss of the Dragon" probably ranks among the better films of Li's twenty-two year acting career, as it is an action vehicle that plays to his strengths (kicking butt) while keeping his liabilities (acting) under wraps.
Li plays Liu Jian, a supercop from Beijing who arrives in Paris to help snare a high-ranking Asian official up to no good. Unfortunately, Liu Jian ends up being double-crossed and framed for murder by the man he was sent to work with, crooked cop Inspector Jean-Pierre Richard (Tcheky Karyo of "The Patriot"). Pretty soon, Liu Jian finds himself up to his neck in Richard's ruthless underlings and members of Parisian law enforcement, and must somehow prove his innocence while evading capture. Thankfully, Liu Jian is also quite adept at the ancient practice of acupuncture, able to paralyze his enemies with a few well-placed needles that he carries in his wrist. In addition, he finds an ally in Jessica (Bridget Fonda of "A Simple Plan"), a simple farmer's daughter from the American mid-west whom Richard has subjugated to a life of prostitution. Despite being the key to clearing Liu Jian's name, Jessica is reluctant to help, as Richard is also in possession of her daughter, whom she desperately wishes to be reunited with.
Essentially one big long chase from start to finish, with a few quiet moments stuck in-between, "Kiss of the Dragon" is an ideal film for Li. This straightforward narrative allows the martial arts master to concentrate on doing what he knows best, while minimizing the requirements for dialogue or demonstrating dramatic range. The script for "Kiss of the Dragon" has its main character in a state of bewilderment for most of the film, reacting to situations as they unfold. Li seems more at ease in this type of role, similar to the bewildered state of the Neo character in "The Matrix" was suitable for the limited thesping abilities of Keanu Reeves.
In terms of action sequences, the film delivers plenty of high-octane thrills that show off the veteran martial arts maestro's abilities. But instead of utilizing the wirework that has been in vogue as of late ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Charlie's Angels"), martial arts choreographer Corey Yuen (who directed Jet Li's "My Father is a Hero" and "High Risk") lets the actors do their stunts 'as is', making the gravity-defying fight-sequences even that much more spectacular.
Credit is also due to the driving force behind the camera, veteran director Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element")-- the John Woo of French action cinema. Serving as one of the film's screenwriters and using a story idea of Li's, Besson has packed the script with a number of fresh action set pieces, which are brought to life with the help of his protege director Chris Nahon and long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Standout sequences include when Liu Jian is trapped in a laundry chute, when he uses a billiard ball to take out a villain, and the film's finale where he single-handedly takes down an entire police station. Mind you, it would be wise to let the younger ones sit this one out, as "Kiss of the Dragon" earns its 'R' rating with its bloody and bone-crunching violence.
Aside from Li's decent turn as the film's hero, Fonda is surprisingly effective and credible as a woman who finds herself trapped in circumstances beyond her control, a trademark of Besson's handiwork ("La Femme Nikita", "The Professional", and "The Fifth Element" also contain this character archetype), and there is even a hint of chemistry between herself and Li. In addition, Karyo is suitably nasty as the film's chief bad guy whose penchant for cruelty seems to know no bounds.
The plot may have a few holes and Jet Li's acting may falter from time to time, but for an exhilarating guilty pleasure experience that also hits a few surprising emotional notes, "Kiss of the Dragon" delivers. Finally, it seems that the martial arts master has found a filmmaker, Luc Besson, who can channel his abilities and pare down his weaknesses into a slam-bang action vehicle, making what is probably Li's best film since his "Fist of Legend" from 1994. Let's hope that this marks the beginning of a new phase in Li's career, as well as the start of a long and productive collaboration between these two cinematic icons from opposite sides of the world.