Kiss of the Dragon -- the latest vehicle for martial-arts star Jet Li, a mainland-China talent who became a superstar in Hong Kong and has since succumbed to the blandishments of Hollywood -- has a little of the best (and a lot of the worst) of Hong Kong films and a lot of the worst of Hollywood action films.
It may be an oversimplification to call Dragon a Hollywood film; the setting and the director (commercials director Chris Nahon, making his feature debut) are both French, as is the big name behind it all -- Luc Besson, who made La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Professional and the regrettable Joan of Arc biopic The Messenger and who here serves as screenwriter (along with Karate Kid and Lethal Weapon 3 veteran Robert Mark Kamen) and producer.
The film centers on a very old plot hook -- an out-of-town spy/hitman/cop on a mission is set up as a patsy by the guys who hired him and must negotiate his way on culturally unfamiliar turf, trying to survive and prove his innocence while both the cops and the bad guys are out to kill him. He will find one person to trust -- almost invariably a great-looking but damaged babe, usually a hooker, a barmaid or a moll of some sort.
In the current iteration, Li plays Liu Jian, a Beijing supercop who is sent to Paris at the request of French police officials investigating a Chinese/French drug-smuggling operation. The City of Lights has never looked more comically sinister than in the opening sequence: The first French character we meet -- surly, ill-shaven -- is so obviously a ruthless villain ... until he turns out to be a simple customs clerk at the airport.
Liu then goes through a ridiculous series of contortions to learn one simple fact: He should report to a certain room in a certain hotel, where French police bigwig Richard (Tchéky Karyo) is running surveillance on a Chinese drug dealer. You'd think he could simply call the embassy (or the Paris central police bureau or someone) and be told, "Head over to Room 441 at the Palace Hotel," but, no, he has to get notes directing him to other notes to mysterious meetings in bars and bathrooms before he can finally connect with Richard.
This, of course, requires that nearly every employee and every patron of the hotel be on Richard's payroll. It appears that the entire Paris police force (or whoever the appropriate group here is) is undercover as part of this one operation. Of course, we soon learn that Richard can afford it: He's not only France's top crime-fighter, he's France's top criminal! In fact, this whole surveillance is a sham: Richard and his hundreds of accomplices actually intend to murder the drug dealer, and Liu has been brought in to serve as the fall guy. Luckily, through an indiscriminate mingling of the utterly impossible and the merely implausible, Liu is able to escape with a video proving that it was Richard who actually committed the murder.
Richard has, of course, convinced everyone that Liu is a psycho killer and has the entire might of the French police lined up to catch him. Let us note right now that all of the gendarmes seem to be in on the conspiracy: The only ones in the entire French government not privy to the big secret are Richard's bosses, who (of course) "have the fullest confidence in him."
If this weren't silly enough, Liu manages to team up with Jessica (Bridget Fonda), a prostitute who is the only witness who can clear his name. Let me emphasize just how coincidental this all is: Liu is holed up in the tiny shop of his trusted contact (Burt Kwouk, who played Kato in the Pink Panther films), and Jessica just happens to be hooking right outside and just happens to need to go to the bathroom. Of all the Chinese bakeries in all the world, she has to stroll into this one looking for a toilet.
Now, one can imagine how relieved Liu would be to find her -- except that, thanks to various disguises and farcelike staging during the murder, neither of them ever got a good look at the other. So they become comrades on the run for quite a spell before they even realize their connection. What a lucky break! In this movie, even the coincidences have coincidences.
It would be a waste of time to catalog the rest of the absurdities by which Kiss of the Dragon moves its plot along: Let us only passingly mention the scene in which the gun-wielding assassins seem to simply drop the pursuit with no explanation and the fact that Richard, having recovered the incriminating video, doesn't destroy it but saves it ... easy to find ... in his desk.
OK, forget all that. Let's get to the important question: How are the action scenes? Well, Besson and Nahon were smart enough to bring aboard longtime Li associate Corey Yuen Kwai (billed here as "Cory Yuen") as action director. Yuen stands with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Ching Siu-Tung (Peking Opera Blues) and Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in the first rank of Hong Kong stunt choreographers. Unfortunately, they failed to let him direct and supervise the editing as well. Under Yuen's direction, Li made such terrific HK films as Fist of Legend (1991), The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk (1993) and My Father Is a Hero (1995), none of the hems of whose garments this current Dragon is allowed to kiss.
Yes, he stages some great fight scenes here, filled with dazzling and clever bits of business and much less reliant on the camera tricks and invisible-wire technique that American viewers have been exposed to in Tomb Raider, Charlie's Angels and other recent productions that have absorbed Hong Kong-style action. But in most cases the staging is compromised or even ruined by bad cutting: Western editors haven't a clue about how to assemble Hong Kong action footage, and Kiss of the Dragon's fight scenes are often hard to follow, with disorienting transitions and no clear sense of geography. (The potentially clever idea of pitting Liu against two nearly identical bleach-blond Anglo giants -- listed in the credits as "the Twins" -- completely backfires. From moment to moment, we can't tell whether there's one bad guy or two, or which one is where. It's just a total mess.)
There is enough cleverness on display to keep these scenes enjoyable, but there is also the frustration of how much better they could have been. One scene -- in which Liu fights his way through an entire classroom of martial-arts students -- stands out as so superior to the others in this regard that one wonders whether it was cut by Yuen himself: Because it's derived from a classic scene he directed in Fist of Legend, that doesn't seem impossible.
Jet Li is a wonderful performer, but his American films so far -- including Romeo Must Die and his stint in Lethal Weapon 4 -- continue to miss the mark. Kiss of the Dragon will probably please hardcore action fans who have become inured to plot idiocies, but it remains a terrible misuse of talent. Fonda, who has done some fine work, is wasted here, and Karyo's cackling villain makes Gary Oldman's scenery-chewing in The Professional look positively restrained.
One final note: People with an aversion to extreme violence should give Kiss of the Dragon a pass. This isn't your family-friendly Jackie Chan fare, folks; its R rating is well-deserved.