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'Kiss of the Dragon'

Slouching 'Dragon': There's no magic in this martial-arts mess

Friday, July 06, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

I don't expect most martial-arts movies to achieve the brilliance of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or to look as good as "The Matrix." I'll settle for a semblance of a plot, a charismatic lead, a juicy villain, well-staged action scenes.

 
    Movie Review

'KISS OF THE DRAGON'

Rating: R for strong violence, language, some sexuality and drug content.

Players: Jet Li, Bridget Fonda.

Director: Chris Nahon.

Critic's call: 1 star.

 
 

"Kiss of the Dragon" fails on all counts. The story makes no sense even by its own logic. The star, Jet Li, walks (and kicks) through the movie in a trance, playing a character with no back story. The bad guy screams like a maniac almost every time he opens his mouth. First-time director Chris Nahon chops up the fight scenes with incessant cuts until the artistry is gone and only the martial remains.

Nahon apparently thinks violence is golden. The film's brutality has caused Li himself to deem it inappropriate for children, which didn't stop some dunderheads from bringing their kids to the preview screening.

The opening sequence shows the lengths to which "Kiss of the Dragon" must go to disguise its shortcomings. Li, who conceived the story (Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are credited with the screenplay), arrives in Paris and heads to Chinatown, where he finds a storefront restaurant identified in a picture he carries. When he opens his luggage, we realize he's here on business, not pleasure.

He goes to a fancy hotel, where he receives a series of brief verbal and written messages sending him to various parts of the building until, finally, he meets the man he is here to see. Li, it turns out, is a Chinese cop. Richard (Tcheky Karyo) is a French cop. So why all the rigmarole? Couldn't their respective agencies have made the introductions ahead of time?

But Richard, it turns out, is a rat. He kills the man they are supposed to be protecting and frames Li, who must fight his way out of the hotel. He goes into hiding but keeps running into Jessica (Bridget Fonda), a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, was on the scene of the double-cross and is being forced to work for Richard, who holds her young daughter hostage. Li promises to help Jessica, who thenceforth displays a pluck and energy in sharp contrast to her previous whiny lethargy.

How did she get into this mess? It's explained almost as a throwaway. What is Richard's game? The movie never bothers to tell us. Who was the dead man? The guy who explains it has such a thick French accent that we can't understand him.

Why should we care about Li's character? By his own admission, he lives solely for his work. By film's end, all we know about him is that he can singlehandedly defeat a room full of black belts, he carries acupuncture needles taped to his wrists that he employs to remarkable effect, and, unlike many martial-arts superfighters, he can get winded.

Maybe if either he or Richard had a soupcon of nuance to them, we might forgive the fact that bad guys firing machine guns with both hands can't hit the broad side of a barn; that when they finally do hit someone, they manage to let their prey escape; that you can walk into an emergency room or the front door of an orphanage in Paris and not encounter a soul; that you can karate-kick a billiard ball off someone's skull.

Watching this movie has the same effect.

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