Kiss of the Dragon (2001)

by Jun Kim


The Sixth Element

It’s too bad that the fight scenes aren’t the only scenes in Kiss of the Dragon. The charismatic Jet Li brings a frankly awesome ferocity to Corey Yuen’s brilliant, non-wired martial arts choreography. These scenes are fast-paced, virulent, sometimes gruesome and often funny in that “I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this” kind of way. Perhaps more importantly, they’re shot (by Luc Besson regular Thierry Arbogast) so that you can see what’s happening, with full-bodies in wide compositions, low and straight-on camera angles, and editing (by Marco Cave) that enhances the action rather than muddling it. The fight scenes are violent, hardcore physical poetry. Handsomely designed and executed, they’re like the song-and-dance numbers in a musical: if you’re watching the movie on tape, you’d fast-forward through everything else to get to them, then rewind and watch them again.

If you decide to see first-time director Chris Nahon’s film in a theater, however, you’ll have to sit through scenes that make up the supposed plot. This is credited to a “story” by Jet Li that has been turned into a script by co-producer Luc Besson and his Fifth Element co-writer Robert Mark Kamen, and for the most part, it revisits Besson’s thematic stomping ground. Kiss of the Dragon features the repressed protagonist nobly dedicated to his violent job, the completely corrupt authority figure, and the confused beautiful girl, all meeting somewhere in a nightmare landscape where feet fly and bones crunch like crazy.

cover art

Kiss of the Dragon

Director: Chris Nahon
Cast: Jet Li, Bridget Fonda, Tcheky Karyo

(Twentieth Century Fox)

More specifically, the plot is this: Chinese supercop Liu Jian (Li) is sent to Paris by his own government to help the French police monitor the activities of a Chinese heroin trafficker. When said trafficker ends up dead—brutally—Liu becomes the fall guy, per order of one Inspector Richard (Tcheky Karyo, from Besson’s La Femme Nikita, here behaving much like psycho Gary Oldman in Besson’s The Professional or even in The Fifth Element), who is, of course, really the villain, malevolent and maniacal, and rather too attached to a pet turtle he keeps in his desk drawer. Along the way, Liu meets a terminally imperceptive junkie-hooker-mom, Jessica (Bridget Fonda, who starred in Point of No Return, the feeble U.S. knock-off of Nikita), conveniently under the thumb of Richard, who has her five-year-old daughter Isabelle hidden away. As is usual in such movie-situations, the mother is devoted to her child, but atypically, this mother has not a clue as to how to go about saving her. Richard describes Jessica’s lack of intelligence as a kind of “naivete,” and attributes it to the fact that she hails from “such a quiet place as North Dakota.” Apparently, Jessica’s years as a prostitute, not to mention her time in Paris and as a mother (however briefly), have not been in any way educational.

While the film lays out a strange and reductive international dynamic—among the devoted Chinese guy, the demonic European, and the dim-witted American girl—it doesn’t do much with it, except use it as a way to demarcate plot positions. Liu is sucked into the Richard-Jessica relationship when she witnesses the same murder that he witnesses; or rather, she doesn’t actually see it, since she’s in a fancy hotel bathroom puking, but she’s been assigned to service the victim, she’s somehow consequential to Richard anyway. At this point (thankfully), the narrative leaves Jessica in her runny mascara in the bathroom, and follows Liu while he takes out a series of Richard’s men, all hellbent on killing him, tracking him up and down elevators and stairways, through the kitchen and laundry chutes. He outdoes them all, thrillingly, and continues to do so throughout the film.

Liu’s ingenious use of mundane implements is, of course, part of the kick in such encounters. But he also has something else going for him, apart from his ability to adapt to his Western environment, and that is his mysterious Chinese “magic.” This takes the literal form of acupuncture needles that he administers to various victims in order to knock them out pleasantly (when Jessica needs a little nap) or slay them savagely (when the bad guy needs to suffer . . . dum-de-dum-dum . . . the “kiss of the dragon”). Certainly, Besson has been here before—the lone, tough, but tender-hearted hero, not so good at articulating how he feels, takes pity on a poor soul and so dispatches whole squads of bad guys to help her. In this case, Liu takes on serial opponents with remarkable speed and elegance: a couple of Aryan-looking Dolph Lundgren wannabes who kick high and hard (Cyril Raffaelli and Didier Azoulay), a few other karate-chopping no-necks, and an entire martial arts class (“This is not a drill!”). It’s undeniably cool to see these displays, but it’s also disheartening, because they come in the midst of such a shambles of a narrative.

In addition to his expertise with the needles, Liu also has a contact arranged by his Beijing superiors, the requisite Chinese ancient, here a sage confectioner and mah-jongg player (Bruce Kwouk). This guy’s shop happens to be on the corner where Jessica is forced to play prostitute, so Liu and she can meet up, again. And that’s really too bad, because the increasingly ridiculous relationship between Jessica and Liu is supposed to be the film’s emotional center. (Their cultural differences make for some very weak comedy: He: “I’m a cop.” She: “I’m Santa Claus.” He: “Who’s Santa Claus?”) When Liu is wounded during a fight, he retreats to the old man’s shop to sew himself up, Rambo-style. Jessica, hanging on the corner, spots him through the window and offers her services (presumably recalling her days on a North Dakota farm, she says, “I used to sew up pigs, it’s my specialty”), and he lets this complete stranger, obviously shaky, to take needle and thread to his gaping flesh wound.

It gets worse. When Jessica learns that Liu saved her life back in that hotel room, she offers him a freebie that he turns down (She: “Guess I’m not your type?” He: I don’t have a type.”). Polite, focused on his job, and absolutely deadly, Liu—like most Asian action heroes in Western films—is all about sublimation. Jet Li ran into a similar issue in his first U.S. starring vehicle, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die, where, though he was the designated “Romeo,” he spent his screen-time in extravagant and entertaining action, only sharing one brief embrace with his supposed girlfriend (Aaliyah), at film’s end. In Kiss of the Dragon, Li displays an even schizzier disposition, and in a more bizarre situation. Liu’s mission is not only to rescue (or vaguely romance) the girl in trouble, but to reunite a whitebready mother and child. Once Liu makes this promise, his fate is sealed: he must spend the rest of the film contending not only with Inspector Richard’s goons, but also Jessica’s inanities (“All you’ve got in your crummy cop’s life is your job!”). It’s hard to tell which is worse.

Like Leon (Jean Reno) in Besson’s The Professional, Liu is used to taking care of his manly action-business, but is perplexed when he finds himself inexplicably moved by a scrappy but distressed female. He is otherworldly, the sixth element. Liu, Jessica, and Isabella can never form a family, but this is common in Besson’s recent movies, in which the protagonist—Nikita or Leon or Joan of Arc—can’t manage a mundane happy ending. These films are repeatedly about the impossibility of men and women coming together. Even the exceptions, Fifth Element‘s Korben (Bruce Willis) and Leeloo (Milla Jovavich), face the most ludicrous obstacle of all: she’s not human!

The Liu-Jessica-Isabella non-relationship is not quite so strange as this, but still, it exacerbates Besson’s usual gender divide with age, race, and nationality differences: Jessica seems much younger even than The Professional‘s Mathilda (Natalie Portman); she’s way too tall to have sex with Liu; and besides, she’s basically stymied by that culture barrier (the naptime needle says as much—this girl is just better off asleep). In the end though, Jessica and Liu’s particular incompatibility is irrelevant to the film’s success or lack of same. Most reviews of Kiss of the Dragon will note that the fight scenes rule and Jet Li is a charismatic action star, and oh yes, the plot sucks. None of that is so interesting as the fact that Besson has found a way to repackage his obsessions—quirky, dark, decidedly unmainstream—in a totally commercial action picture.

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