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'Kiss of the Dragon': Ouch La La

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2001


    'Kiss of the Dragon' Jet Li shows no merci in "Kiss of the Dragon." (P. Camboulive/Fox)
Someone who counted informs me that Jet Li kills 81 guys in "Kiss of the Dragon," assuming that all those spinning head kicks and flying dragon punches are lethal. Moreover, he tends to dispatch his opponents in clusters, once even massacring an entire dojoful of French special policemen in their martial-arts outfits.

But without context, of what value is such information? Is this a lot of victims by Jet Li standards? Or is it rather modest? I have no idea. And when Jet dispatches a particularly loathsome villain by pronging him with chopsticks in the throat, are we to be glad that he chose not to go through the eyes, the ears or the nostrils? Does he usually go for eyes when he kills with chopsticks? Again, without a PhD in Jetology from the University of Hong Kong, who can speak authoritatively?

What can be said is only this: "Kiss of the Dragon" offers just about a kill a minute, but less than a thrill a minute.

Despite its hero's athleticism (considerable) and speed (blinding), the movie isn't near special. It's just the usual martial-arts stuff, an incomprehensible plot, a villain so sure he's going to win an Oscar he eats not only the scenery of this movie but of the next three or four as well, a simpering weepy American prostitute from North Dakota and lots of whacks, thwacks and smacks.

The plot is a feeble pretext for 90 minutes in punch city. Li, a Chinese policeman, is sent to coordinate with French police who are investigating a Chinese drug dealer. However, he's really being set up by the corrupt officer in charge, who wants the mild-looking Jet to take the fall for killing the gangster, a competitor to the cop's growing crime empire.

Naturally, Jet escapes; naturally he is chased; naturally many fights ensue.

There are a few distinguishing features in all the blurring of motive and accent. The Frenchman in the villain's role is Tcheky Karyo – think Harvey Keitel high on escargot – who overacts so aggressively you worry for his health. An embolism threatens to bring him down at any moment. Then there's Bridget Fonda as the weepy prostitute he has blackmailed into street duty, with whom Jet bonds, whose daughter he saves, whose bra peeks through her half-buttoned blouse the entire movie long. Really: Bridget Fonda dressed like an extra in "Irma la Douce." Incroyable!

The flaw in the film – well, other than the film itself – is Li's lack of charisma. He is a great fighter, but when he is not kicking le postérieur of various French toads, he's not registering. He doesn't have Jackie Chan's comic self-awareness or Bruce Lee's intensity or Chow Yun-Fat's beauty. He just looks a little baffled.

I will say that the movie improves radically in its last few minutes, when Jet attacks an entire French police station. That gets him through the martial-arts class, one by one, two by one, even six by one, a very neat scene in which he demonstrates incredible hand speed; a nice one-on-two against two blond giants who appear to be almost but not quite as fast as he is; and a final confrontation with M. Karyo's overwrought acting style, where he does conjure up a most delicious cool righteous death.

But – and I speak as a man kicked out of the Ritz for not being cool enough – I most admired an earlier sequence in which somebody pulls two Uzis and hoses the holy interior decoration out of the lobby of a Paris four-star hotel, of exactly the sort that I was asked to leave. I like that in a movie.

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


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