Beware! This review contains spoilers!
Jet Li’s films are usually hard-edged, ultraviolent affairs offering adult film-goers an invigorating shot of adrenaline. 2001’s Kiss Of The Dragon is no different. In the mouth of martial arts megastar Li, a polite request like, “I would very much appreciate it if you don’t do that again”, comes dripping with menace, and is backed-up by the fastest and deadliest martial arts since the days of Bruce Lee. Co-written by the award-winning Luc Besson, produced by Besson and Li himself, and choreographed by Li’s prolific go-to guy, Corey Yuen, Kiss Of The Dragon is a supremely satisfying blend of Hong Kong kung-fu mayhem and Gallic gun-fu flair that leaves one wondering why these three awesome talents don’t collaborate more often!
Jet Li is definitely more comfortable in this role as a quiet, determined assassin than in his previous fish-out-of-water experience in Romeo Must Die. He struts through the scenes, doling out punishment in his most vicious and intense role yet. Li is also starting to develop a trademark in his films, namely props. In Romeo Must Die, it was plastic ties which he used to subdue adversaries. In a nice twist, Li uses acupuncture needles in Kiss Of The Dragon to not only subdue, but to heal and to kill. The villainous Inspector Jean-Pierre Richard, played by Besson’s cherished Tcheky Karyo, is one of the most ambiguously violent bad guys to ever hit the screen. And while Karyo’s over-the-top performance initially seems implausible considering that his character is trying to maintain his dedicated policeman image, it eventually makes sense as a rather effective allusion to Gary Oldman’s crazy killer-cop character in Besson’s The Professional. Bridget Fonda, who had also previously worked with Besson on La Femme Nikita, portrays Jessica Kamen, a sweet but misguided woman whose life has turned into a nightmare, leaving her pretty much bereft of hope.
Chinese intelligence agent, Liu Sui-jian is sent to Paris to aid in the apprehension of a Chinese mob boss, the aptly named, Mr. Big. After arriving in a snazzy hotel in a strange country, Liu is confidentially directed towards the men’s bathroom, wherein he is thoroughly searched and rather anticlimactically led to meet Inspector Jean-Pierre Richard, a corrupt French police detective. Liu, believing he is merely providing reconnaissance of a meet involving Mr. Big, takes a back seat during the operation until he senses something amiss. Mr. Big is introduced to two prostitutes, one being Jessica Kamen, a North Dakotan woman, who follow him to his room to service him. While the French prostitute is occupied with Mr. Big, she stabs him multiple times. Overseeing this grisly turn of events from a surveillance room, Liu rushes to put an end to the violence, subduing the cocaine-fuelled strumpet with an acupuncture needle. Richard enters shortly after to shoot Mr. Big and the prostitute with Liu’s own police-issued handgun, framing our hero for the murders. But despite Richard’s most ruthless efforts, Liu miraculously manages to escape through the laundry chute and out into the night, taking the surveillance cassette with him.
When Chinese liaisons are sent to France to investigate the incident, Richard makes Liu out as the murderer and part of a farfetched conspiracy to keep Mr. Big from testifying in the Chinese courts. Meanwhile, Liu seeks refuge at old Uncle Tai’s residence in Chinatown. Eventually, Liu is able to make contact with one of the liaisons, and manages to slip him the security cassette. Due to French police surveillance however, their intersection is spotted, the liaison assassinated, and the security tape retaken by the baddies. Liu survives the ambush after a spectacular battle on the Seine river and again sequesters himself in Uncle Tai’s humble abode. While hiding out, Liu meets the acquaintance of Jessica, who is unsuccessfully working the corners of Chinatown. Unaware of her involvement in the setup of Mr. Big, Liu deals with Jessica’s abusive pimp, Lupo and the rest of his gang in an unforgiving fashion! When Uncle Tai returns home with groceries, he is savagely gunned down by one of Richard’s sidekicks, who Liu repays in kind with some chopsticks to the jugular. After learning of Jessica’s identity, Liu tries to persuade her to follow him to the Chinese embassy, as proof of Richard’s evil deeds. In return, Liu promises to help Jessica rescue her daughter, Isabel, who is being held hostage by Richard.
Upon deciding that the cassette would provide the best form of evidence against Richard, Liu sends Jessica to Richard’s headquarters to recover the tape. After retrieving the cassette, the pair head to the orphanage where Isabel is being held. However, Richard anticipates their next move after discovering Jessica has stolen the tape, and ambushes the couple at the orphanage. After failing to rescue Isabel, Jessica is shot in the chest. Liu then whisks her away to hospital, and becomes determined to retrieve her daughter. Liu arrives at the police station where Richard is holding Isabel hostage. Liu fights his way through insurmountable odds and a diverse range of opponents in order to get to Richard. The angry antagonist is waiting for Liu with his gun firmly placed on Isabel’s temple. After failing to deliver a fatal bullet wound to our hero, Richard becomes the unwilling recipient of Liu’s acupuncture needle. Liu implants the needle into the back of his neck, in a forbidden location known as the “Kiss Of The Dragon”, which stimulates all the body’s blood to travel to the brain. After leaving Richard to die a truly gruesome death via brain aneurysm, Liu returns Isabel back to her mother…
In Kiss Of The Dragon, Jet Li jumps into a series of martial arts sequences with flying fists and balletic moves that truly reinvigorate the martial arts genre. The marriage of Eastern and Western filmmaking has never looked better. Luc Besson’s influence on the film is clearly seen. His principle cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast who had worked on most of Besson’s films handles action director, Corey Yuen’s fight scenes incredibly well. The colours and tone of the film are clearly European, but the rapid movements and intensity are most definitely Hong Kongese!
The martial arts action positively glistens. It’s straightforward street fighting, complete with the Jet Li flourish, but blessedly free of the wire work that had become so in vogue at the time. Instead, Li’s kung-fu has an honest, gritty vitality that makes for scenes that reach for the sublimity of Fist of Legend, especially when he lays waste to the entire French police force in their karate dojo! A deft use of medium shots and tight editing bring the action up to the edge, and the results are simply…stunning!
In fact, I would suggest that Li comes dangerously close to reprising his role as Chen from Fist of Legend, in as far as he’s again able to portray such a calculated, unrelenting figure, but also remain composed and convey a certain tenderness. This is shown largely through his use of acupuncture needles, with which he can cure or kill with one deftly inserted point. Li’s character is also master of the full array of martial arts, and in this film he needs them, since he is opposed by more or less every villain in Paris.
The initial escape by Li is a brilliantly staged affair, and comprises my personal favorite action sequence, in which Li takes down a pilot come gunman by flipping a billiard ball into the air and spectacularly drop-kicking it across the room into his face! Li’s main fighting foes are fictional brothers played by martial arts dynamos Cyril Raffaelli and Didier Azoulay. They definitely provide a memorable climatic fight with Li that is more satisfying than anything seen in the last half-dozen Jet Li films. When all is said and done, by downplaying the drama and keeping the plot painlessly simple, Li and company are able to deliver a powerhouse mixture of kung-fu and gun-fu destruction to rival the films of John Woo and Bruce Lee.
The weak of stomach should avoid this one at all costs. Kiss Of The Dragon doesn’t do smart, it doesn’t do subtle and it certainly doesn’t do gentle. What it does do is vicious, fast-paced, bloody mayhem – and it does that very well indeed. Besson’s foray into martial-arts cinema is a stripped-down speed machine of an action movie. Anything that might slow the ruthless rock’n’roll action – like dialogue, plotting, in-depth characterisation – is mercilessly pared away until only the bare minimum is left. It’s a film that exists purely to deliver fight sequence after fight sequence, giving the audience as little breathing time between bouts of Far Eastern fisticuffs as possible. The result isn’t pretty, but boy is it effective!
- The style of action in Kiss Of The Dragon was heavily influenced by comments made during a series of messages posted by fans on the Jet Li website forum, immediately after the release of Romeo Must Die in the United States. The fans wanted more realistic fighting, such as that seen in Fist of Legend.
- The only scenes that utilize CGI are when Li falls down the laundry chute and when he drop-kicks the billiard ball.
- The only scenes involving wire work are when Li drop-kicks the billiard ball and when Cyril Raffaelli performs his one-and-a-quarter backwards somersault-kick.
- Raffaelli knows how to perform the one-and-a-quarter backwards somersault-kick without the aid of wires. There were at least two takes without the wire, but supposedly wires were added in for “clarity”.
- Director Chris Nahon, had to slow down the fight scene between Li and Raffaelli because they were moving too fast for the camera!
- The tunnel where Li is ambushed by French policemen is the same tunnel at Pont d’Alma in Paris where Princess Diana died.
- The turtle that Richard keeps in his drawer was the pet of one of the crew members.
Jean-Pierre Richard: You tried Chinatown?
French policeman 1: Yeah, but it’s hard to be discreet.
Jean-Pierre Richard: So put on a wig and a kimono. I don’t care how you do it. Now get out!
Liu Sui-jian: I’m a cop.
Jessica Kamen: I’m Santa Claus.
Liu Sui-jian: Who’s Santa Claus?
Jessica Kamen: Big fat guy. Red suit. Flying reindeer.
Isabel: That’s for boys. Don’t you have any barbies?
Jean-Pierre Richard: All my barbies are working.
Jean-Pierre Richard: Oh Johnny, Johnny. I’m disappointed in you, coming to Paris for the first time and instead of enjoying yourself, you’re doing all this useless running around!
Liu Sui-jian: I don’t like to get bored.
Liu Sui-jian: It’s called the Kiss Of The Dragon
Jean-Pierre Richard: Kiss my @*s!