Every summer there’s so much hype surrounding such big, loud cinematic atrocities (Pearl Harbor, anyone?), that you have to tune out the noise to find anything really worth seeing. Now I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been giving wide berth to this year’s crapathon, but I hadn’t realized a film I’d actually been looking forward to was about to be released until a couple of weeks ago. Then again, maybe it’s not just me. What with so many resources focused upon the Planet of the Apes remake and Dr. Dolittle 2, Fox hasn’t necessarily put forth the effort on pimping a smaller work from the minds of Hong Kong’s Jet Li and France’s Luc Besson. It would really suck then if the public didn’t catch on to it. “Kiss of the Dragon” might actually be the most consistently satisfying movie the studio releases all year.
Most films have around ten minutes to really grab your attention. For action flicks it’s a little less. The authors of this epic (I’ll get to them in a minute) are in no hurry to get down to story specifics so much as to establish a tone and a look. If nothing else, it does look great. Even when we first see our hero Liu Jiuan (Li) arrive in Paris for the first time from Beijing, he appears to have stopped off for a Euro-fashion makeover. Class and sophistication are little to be found as Liu’s next stop is through the red-light district to reach the shop of an enigmatic elderly Chinese man. Once there, our star removes the hidden weapons from his bags to where the story will begin in earnest.
At a snooty hotel, Liu is led through a gauntlet of code words and thugs to meet the menacing Richard (Tcheky Karyo). It turns out both men are cops. Each highly-ranked and decorated, the pair are supposed to join efforts in bringing in a big-time Chinese drug smuggler currently sitting in the lobby. Their bust first seems to go awry when a pair of prostitutes arrives for the man’s entertainment. Unfortunately, Liu doesn’t envision the degree of danger he himself is in until both the smuggler and one of the hookers are soon killed with the Chinese cop next on Richard’s list. With a whole squadron of bad cops on his trail, Liu’s only hope for justice and survival is the surviving prostitute Jessica (Bridget Fonda). A very strong French/Chinese culture clash ensues.
Though almost entirely in English for the American and international markets, this movie is most definitely the product of French and Hong Kong sensibilities. If you’re looking for honor and nobility, you’re better off looking to Hollywood. While HK can dish up their share as well, the offspring of Gallic cinema nearly always act upon baser and much more selfish motivations.
This project began life with the decision by HK superstar Li and French superstar director Besson to work together. Reportedly, Li came up with the original story with Besson and the American Robert Mark Kamen crafting the screenplay. Besson then produced with French music video veteran Chris Nahon taking the director’s chair. Li brought in his long time fight choreographer Cory Yuen to handle all the Kung Fu stuff.
Though Besson isn’t the helmer by credit, his auteur-ship is all over this thing. The number of similarities between “Dragon” and Besson’s modern crime epics get a little eerie. There’s similar use of a restaurant’s laundry chute as in “La Femme Nikita” and an import sequence set in a police station involving a young girl as in “The Professional.” Hell, Fonda starred in the awful American remake of “Nikita”, “Point of No Return”. Oh, there’s one other big thing, too. Now it’s hard to tell whether Besson or Nahon is responsible for one characteristic that makes up the “French-ness” of this endeavor, but one very noticeable aspect here is the weird French penchant for self-loathing. Largely represented only by Richard and his gang of rogue cops, the only image you take away is of a hateful people (particularly toward foreigners) drowning in their own corruption and vices. The last time I can recall watching a band of bad lawmen like this was in, oh, “The Professional”. Believe me, Karyo proves more than adequate at being the French Gary Oldman.
Of course the big question here is how does the movie rate as a “JET LI-film”? Romeo Must Die was just a testing of the U.S. waters and was too reliant on other actors to allow the martial arts superstar to act much. “Kiss of the Dragon” is his first real English-language showcase. Even to his long-time fans in Hong Kong and America the results should be eye-opening.
Why? There are a couple of reasons. In the wake of the successful Charlie’s Angels, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which Li turned down), and The Matrix (which Li turned down the sequels), the actor decided to distinguish “Dragon” by foregoing any wire-fighting and rely strictly on real martial artists performing real Kung Fu. The resulting fight scenes are among the best and most visceral ever produced in a western film.
The other notable detail here is how Li’s character is presented. One of the biggest differences between Hong Kong’s Kung Fu cinema legends is the persona each has developed and reinforced for himself. For example, Jackie Chan is generally the acrobatic clown who will try to run from danger only to crush his opponents when cornered. By contrast, Li has usually been the cool, noble loner who unhesitatingly wades into the bad guys to serve justice and/or rescue others in danger. Nominally, he does that in this film too, but there’s a distinct difference in tone. The only thing to which I can compare it is the vibe you get from, well, Bruce Lee.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t each star pursue their missions in the same way? Not hardly. Jet rarely strays from portraying the picture of Buddhist calm in pursuit of what is right and is less likely to be caught throwing the first punch in any encounter. In real life, the man who spent his teenage years as a national Wu-Shu Kung Fu champion in mainland China spent his 20s gradually building a film career in Hong Kong until his success finally nipped at the heels of Chan after a decade.
Bruce is another story. He revolutionized the industry by creating very modern, alienated characters. After spending much of his adult life in the U.S., the legend didn’t begin his HK career until he’d been repeatedly snubbed and screwed over in Hollywood. Perhaps as a result, his brief body of work repeatedly presents him as one pissed-off engine of destruction. His characters aren’t so much about justice as vengeance. Sure it’s nice if good prevails, but first evil must be brutally crushed.
The differences between Li and Lee are clearest in the films each actor made about the same historical figure, Chen Zhen. Set in pre-WWII Shanghai, the rough story in each case concerns Zhen’s return home following his master’s mysterious death, likely at the hands of the Japanese military occupying the city. While Jet’s hero must avenge his master in “Fist of Legend,” he also struggles with his emerging relationship with a Japanese girl and the prejudices found among both of their peoples. On the other hand, in “The Chinese Connection” Bruce is so full of a rage you only hope vengeance will arrive before a blood vessel pops in his head. This time out, all Japanese are portrayed in only a slightly worse light than the French in “Kiss of the Dragon.”
Don’t get me wrong, the Jet-ster does take time to get his religious principles across. However, when the final showdown comes to pass, his Beijing cop announces his presence to his enemies just before commencing frog season. He strikes first and last. There’s no walking away from the final confrontation until our hero knows no one else is, and his hated enemies are going down HARD. Is this his inner-Bruce coming out at last, or is it just some French disdain for higher motivations of human behavior? Either way, we have here a film that is very different than anything you’ve seen before. Whatever it is, I like it.