Be thankful that Jet Li (Fist of Legend, Once Upon A Time In China...) took part in creating the story behind Kiss of the Dragon and that his abilities as an actor charge the film with his honed power. Throughout the film one senses that it is only Liís influence, and not the often overbearing signature of producer/screenwriter Luc Besson, that takes the narrative anywhere, as he is somehow able to bring character development and passion to an otherwise typical role of top-cop/martial arts master out for justice in a corrupt government system.
From the pacing and visuals of Kiss of the Dragon, one would think that Besson himself realizes that he is recreating his own material (e.g. The Professional, La Femme Nikita); lonely assassin vs. corrupt cop, lots of guns, and a hint of misogny. And then thereís the action: Luc Bessonís script and Chris Nahonís directing assaults the viewer with relentless gore, eye-jarring violence, and action that happens so rapidly and perpetually that it borders on absurdity. Whether itís the nimble and acrobatic Paris police (curiously equipped with more and better high-tech weaponry than the U.S. Army) filling a high-class restaurant (and itís patrons) with bullets, or whether Liu ďJohnnyĒ Jian (Jet Li) is fighting off a score of armed opponents with no more than his fists, a billiard ball, and half a dozen needles, Kiss of the Dragon certainly takes the genre a step higher in terms of kinetic visuals. It also keeps Kiss of the Dragon from spending enough time on some of the really rather striking character issues on the screen. The most intriguing of which centers on Liís character, Liu Jian, a fiercely detached PRC agent who finds himself struggling with the purity of his independence and self-reliance when an exploited young woman, Jessica (hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold played by Bridget Fonda), aids and needs aid from him.
Liu Jian comes across as both able and charismatic while retaining the ďlonerĒ persona so prevalent in this genre. Li is so good in this role that it is easy to leap over some of the films interesting narrative hurdles: e. g. Parisian police are inherently evil and corrupt, but PRC police are overwhelmingly good and loyal; ancient Eastern ritualistic medicine (acupuncture) can overcome modern Western military technology (automatic weapons). In comparison, the other characters are, at worst, forgettable, and, at best, hardly worth mentioning. Fonda performs typically as the expatriate prostitute Jessica, while Tchecky Karyo manages to be both dully dry and happily sadistic as bad-guy detective Richard. Burt Kwouk deserves a mention for the quiet subtlety with which he plays Liís contact, but he, like the rest of a myriad of characters, is killed off too quickly to enjoy.
Somehow I imagine that wonít matter to 90% of the people who view this film. It is, after all, an action movie, a member of a genre where believability does not matter, character development does not happen, and nearly all the actors are paid to pretend to get killed. While most of them and their characters, like henchman Lupo, are happily discarded, itís disappointing that Jet Li does not get the chance. But it is disappointing because his prowess as an actor (perhaps the one thing that this over-production could not completely stifle) not tedium, that makes the prospect of seeing Li in that sort of drama attractive.