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A Fist Full of Frenchmen

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 6, 2001

   


    'Kiss of the Dragon' Jet Li shows no merci in "Kiss of the Dragon." (P. Camboulive/Fox)
A diminutive but formidable Chinese cop arrives in a foreign land; he doesn't understand the culture, but he's prepared to outmaneuver any antagonist. It sounds like the premise for a dozen Jackie Chan flicks, but "Kiss of the Dragon" actually features Jet Li, who is easily Chan's equal at kung fu but doesn't share Chan's comic flair. Li punches, kicks and twirls without cracking a smile, and so does this movie.

"Kiss of the Dragon" does have a sense of its own absurdity, but that doesn't prevent it from cloaking the inherently comic kung-fu genre in a seriousness so solemn that it could be French. In fact, it is. "Romeo Must Die" star Li conceived the story and took it to Luc Besson, who wrote the script with Hollywood screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, who worked on "Karate Kids" 1 and 2 as well as Besson's "The Fifth Element." Parisian TV-commercial maker Chris Nahon directed, yielding a French film with a Hong Kong star and English-language dialogue.

The action commences when Jiuan (Li) arrives in Paris. A crack Beijing police operative, Jiuan has been summoned to stop a Chinese heroin smuggler. Jiuan is soon introduced to French Police Inspector Richard (Besson regular Tcheky Karyo), who swaggers a little too ominously to be a good guy. Sure enough, Richard is involved in the drug trade – among other rackets – and plans to eliminate the dealer and frame Jiuan for the murder. Richard accomplishes much of his plan, but the Chinese cop makes a spectacular getaway, juggling a grenade as he escapes down a laundry chute. Jiuan can't prove he didn't kill the dealer, however, unless he recovers a surveillance videotape or tracks down one of the witnesses, junkie hooker Jessica (Bridget Fonda).

The movie offers the basic tour of Paris landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower to Sacre Coeur to Place de la Concorde, but compresses Chinatown and Pigalle's red light district into one coexistent block. So it's only logical that Jessica should turn up outside the shrimp-cracker factory where Jiuan is hiding, trolling for clients while the Chinese cop ponders his next move. Jiuan doesn't immediately recognize her, but once he makes the connection, the two start working together. A formerly innocent farm girl from North Dakota, Jessica's in thrall to Richard because the dirty inspector's holding her young daughter hostage. Naturally, Jiuan agrees to add rescuing the little girl to his agenda, along with clearing his own name and personally bludgeoning roughly half of Paris's police force.

The movie acknowledges that the Chinese avenger's quest is somewhat droll, notably in a scene where he bursts through a door inside a police station, only to encounter a martial-arts classroom full of strapping Gallic cops outfitted with batons. Yet "Kiss of the Dragon" undercuts the humor and grace of the fight scenes – superbly choreographed by longtime Li collaborator Corey Yuan – with raw brutality that's uncharacteristic of Hong Kong cinema. Jiuan's secret weapon is a selection of acupuncture needles that can quietly incapacitate an opponent. When not employing the needles, however, Jiuan is searing attacker's faces with hot irons or jamming chopsticks deep into a man's throat. Richard is introduced while beating a man's face to a pulp, and a minor character is literally blown in half.

"Kiss of the Dragon" is in part a post-colonial fantasy of French ruthlessness, in the tradition of such bloody Besson romps as "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional." But it also functions as a revenge fantasy for anyone who's ever been snubbed by a Parisian waiter or shopkeeper. Not only does the Chinese superman defeat beefy blond Frenchmen by the score, he topples several of them with the French tricolor itself. The result isn't as elegant as the '50s and '60s Jean-Pierre Melville films that inspired John Woo, but it does have energy, style and some wit.

Too bad the filmmakers – and here's where the American part comes in – decided the movie had to have some heart, too. This aspect is embodied by the simpering, strung-out but maternal Jessica, a part that is both badly played and essentially unplayable. Ironically, Fonda was the murderous agent in "Point of No Return," the U.S. remake of "La Femme Nikita." That role was ridiculous, too, but at least she got to shoot people.

"Kiss of the Dragon" (R, 120 minutes)Contains strong violence, language, some sexuality and drug content. Area theaters.

 

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