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(2001) (Jet Li, Bridget Fonda) (R)

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Action/Adventure: Framed for a murder he didn't commit, a decorated Chinese agent tries to get to a corrupt French police official and retrieve an American hooker's young daughter, all while avoiding various attempts on his life.
Liu Jian (JET LI) is one of China's most decorated government agents who's been sent to Paris to assist Richard (TCHÉKY KARYO), a local police official, in some joint task force. Unbeknownst to Liu, however, Richard has decided to use the opportunity to kill their target and pin the murder on him. Escaping from Richard's various henchmen with videotaped surveillance footage that proves his innocence, Liu takes refuge with his Chinese contact, Uncle Tai (BURT KWOUK), where he hopes to figure out what to do next.

It's there that he happens to meet Jessica (BRIDGET FONDA), a hooker who's working a nearby street corner, is employed by Richard due to him holding her young daughter, Isabel (ISABELLE DUHAUVELLE), hostage, and happened to be at the pivotal murder scene. After he loses the videotape during a run-in with more of Richard's men and then protects Jessica from more of Richard's thugs, Liu and Jessica enter into an unlikely partnership.

Promising to retrieve Isabel if Jessica will steal back the videotape and be his eyewitness regarding his innocence, Liu takes on Richard's various thugs, including the muscular twins (CYRIL RAFFAELLI & DIDIER AZOULAY), his right-hand man, Max (JOHN FORGEHAM) and apparent pimp, Lupo (MAX RYAN), all while trying to clear his name.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When it comes to martial arts films, few, if any people see them for their plots or can remember or decipher what they were just moments, let alone days, weeks or months, after seeing them. Whether drama or comedy based, the storylines of such films - no matter whatever efforts to craft something resembling art - are rarely much more than skeletons upon which to hang all of the various fight sequences and stunts in which the movie's fighting machines, uh, stars can participate.

Over the years those have ranged from the real deal, such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to the generic imitators such as Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. Lee, of course, "left" the biz at the pinnacle of his career - thus cementing his legendary and forever young status - leaving the others to age and still try to kick, punch and leap like their former selves.

Accordingly, martial arts fans needed a new face and some fresh blood for such cinematic mayhem and that arrived in the form of Jet Li. Already a big hit in Asia thanks to films such as "Fist of Legend" and "Shaolin Temple," Li kicked his way into international fame by playing the fleet-footed villain in "Lethal Weapon 4." Realizing he could be the next big thing, Hollywood then crafted a starring vehicle for him in "Romeo Must Die," the 2000 film that had plenty of "Matrix" inspired fighting, but surprisingly not a great deal of Li.

All of which leads us to "Kiss of the Dragon," Li's latest martial arts action flick that's just more of the same old, same old, but undeniably delivers what's expected of it, often in an astonishing and spectacular fashion. Accordingly, there's plenty of rapid-fire punching and kicking, bad acting, one-dimensional villains and an instantly forgettable storyline.

Yet, in the film's press kit - like many others preceding it for films along these lines - the filmmakers comment, ever so earnestly, about how they concentrated on making a film with a good story and characters that wouldn't bore viewers between the action scenes.

Well, while it may be above average in doing so for a martial arts film, it's not likely that's what the film will be remembered for down the line. The plot - written by Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element," "The Professional") and Robert Mark Kamen ("Lethal Weapon 3," "The Karate Kid") who work from Li's original story - is serviceable as it moves the story from one fight sequence to the next, but the wrongly framed man premise isn't exactly novel and the film mostly puts any semblance of tangible smarts on the back burner.

Instead and not surprisingly, the film - helmed by Chris Nahon (who makes his directorial debut) - is most notable for its many fight sequences and Li's martial arts moves and prowess. Still young and agile - as say compared to Jackie Chan who's beginning to show he can't fight off the inevitable, slowing down effects that time has over him - Li is nothing short of impressive to watch and thankfully gets a great deal more screen time than he did in his last starring role.

Reportedly following the "advice" and/or requests of fans to return to the fighting style found in "Fist of Legend," Li has abandoned most, if not all of the non-realistic wire-fighting techniques found in "Romeo," and replaced them with straight out hand to hand and foot to foot combat material.

The film's various action sequences have been directed by Hong Kong legend Cory Yuen who's recently moved over to U.S. productions with "X-Men" and "Lethal Weapon 4," and while some rely too much on the efforts of editor Marco Cave ("La Bostella," "Coup de Vice") and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ("The Fifth Element," "She's So Lovely") rather than Li's straightforward physical abilities, the scenes are still mostly a blast to watch for those who enjoy such cinematic mayhem.

As was the case with the first film, the best such moments involve material that's obviously inspired - to some degree -- by Jackie Chan's style of martial arts fighting. Various ancillary objects - such as laundry irons - are used to ward off certain attackers, while various bits of comedy are injected into the proceedings - such as Li's character suddenly finding himself in a roomful of martial arts students in one scene and propping up some French police (that he's just knocked out) against some lockers as if nothing happened in another - all of which add to the proceedings and make it more accessible to those who aren't hardcore fight fans.

Regarding the performances, Li is showing signs of improvement as a straight-forward actor and does have a certain onscreen charisma, but this film isn't going to turn him into a thespian star as it doesn't give him much to do - when the punching and kicking have temporarily ceased - other than look pensive. Bridget Fonda ("Monkeybone," "Jackie Brown") fares worse in her hooker-based damsel in distress role. The chemistry between her and Li is essentially flat and her signature dramatic moments are pure melodrama that will likely induce fingernails down the chalkboard type reactions.

As the head villain, Tchéky Karyo ("The Patriot," "La Femme Nikita") chews up the scenery with the best of them, seemingly believing that screaming and throwing temper tantrums will make him come off that much more menacing. The rest of those playing his henchman are nothing more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts/punching bags and offer little to the film other than a high body count.

Sporting an unnecessarily hazy plot and filled with some bad dialogue and overacting, this film may appease fans of relatively straightforward martial arts madness. It also shows that Li - if accompanied by a good script, acting coach and a better director - could create a picture that's as much fun to watch during the quiet moments as it is during all of the action. Alas, this isn't that film.

Not horrible and certainly entertaining enough for what it's trying to be and enjoyable to some degree for those looking for this sort of action, this film is the equivalent of having a powerful engine hidden within some old and boring jalopy. It may kick a lot when the pedal is pressed to the metal, but it isn't likely to have the average viewer wanting to go along for the ride. "Kiss of the Dragon" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 28, 2001 / Posted July 6, 2001

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