Jet Li engages in several exciting fight sequences in this debut feature by Chris Nahon, yet another music video-commercial whiz seguing into films (this time under the sponsorship of French auteur Luc Besson), but unfortunately his spectacular acrobatic efforts are mired in a narrative so silly, filled with dialogue and situations of surpassing idiocy, that a viewer is more inclined to chortle than cheer at the result. Like Besson’s own pictures, it boasts a glossy, ostentatiously stylish surface, but underneath it’s pure corn.
Li plays Liu Jian, mainland China’s answer to James Bond, who travels to Paris incognito to assist French police in nabbing a Chinese drug-dealer and his western contact. Unhappily, the co-conspirator turns out to be none other than Liu’s French counterpart, a corrupt, snarling cop named Richard (Tcheky Karyo), who assassinates the crook and frames Liu for the murder. Our hero escapes in the first flamboyant action sequence, carrying with him a video proving Richard’s guilt. The remainder of the film is a cat-and-mouse chase through the French capital as Richard tries to terminate Liu and Liu seeks to prove his innocence and trap his nemesis. With all the running about, dodging of bullets and fisticuffs, you might call it “Paris by Flight.”
Needless to say, Liu doesn’t have to do battle entirely alone. He’s aided not only by a wise old Chinese confectioner (played by none other than Burt Kwouk, showing the same ability to keep a straight face in absurd circumstances that was his forte as Kato in the Pink Panther films), but by Jessica, an expatriate American who happens to be, if you’ll pardon the expression, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. She’s in Richard’s thrall, you see, because he’s got her daughter (a kid who, when she finally turns up, proves inexplicably to have a British accent), but because Liu treats her sweetly and promises to rescue the child, she assists him instead. This leads to a few more action sequences and a big finale which pits our hero against what seems to be all the elite of the Paris police force, as well as a couple of twin Arnold Schwarzenegger types in Richard’s employ and the Big Guy himself. The climactic showdown, unfortunately, proves to be a pallid ripoff of the similar moment at the end of “The Fury” (1978), in which Brian De Palma gave John Cassavetes a villain’s ultimate just deserts. The moment isn’t nearly as viscerally satisfying (or hilarious) here.
The main reason why “Kiss of the Dragon” doesn’t succeed nearly as well as its gloss and often nimble choreography might suggest is that the script is so poor. That’s not just the case with its basic narrative thrust–which seems like a pale imitation of “North by Northwest” rendered even more ludicrous by absurd coincidences (the way that Liu and Jessica bump into one another not once but twice is particularly dumb–Paris is a pretty big city, after all)–but with the dialogue, which in its insipidity all too often sounds like precisely what it is: the work of a Frenchman clumsily translated into clunky English cliches. Richard’s constant rants are bad enough, but the big emotional outbursts given to Jessica are even worse, and when she made to tell Liu, who’s leading her through the French capital, “I can’t walk the streets all night,” the line is so incongruous, given her profession, that the effect is unintentionally risible. As for Li, he maintains an impassive surface and recites his mercifully brief sentences slowly and carefully, as befits the fact that he’s probably learned them phonetically; a repeated gag that has him using acupuncture for all sorts of miraculous effects (including the titular mode of incapacitation) is initially amusing but is resorted to all too often.
Under these conditions the acting could hardly be anything more than serviceable, but it often falls significantly below that modest level. The fact that Li is no thespian comes as no surprise– he’s there for the kicks and leaps, after all–but his co-stars are another matter. Fonda, looking scraggly, pouts and smirks her way through the picture like a Baywatch babe on hiatus from the tube, and Karyo mugs so ferociously that it’s impossible to believe his police superiors could ever have taken him seriously. Apart from Kwouk, the others are about mostly to serve as punching bags or convenient gunshot victims.
Whether you’ll glean much pleasure from “Kiss of the Dragon” will depend on your tolerance of empty martial arts acrobatics and your ability to find the flamboyant surface characteristic of Besson enjoyable even in the absence of the slightest shred of plausibility or any appreciable content. It must be said, however, that despite the fact that one of the participating production entities is named “Current and Immortal Entertainment,” the picture is at best an ephemeral exhibition of mindless action that you’ll probably have forgotten even before the final credits have ceased to roll.