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Kiss of the Dragon (July 4/01)

Finally, an action movie with some teeth.

Jet Li (Romeo Must Die, Lethal Weapon 4) stars as Liu Jiuan, a Chinese government agent sent to Paris. He's there to help out Richard (Tcheky Karyo), a French police officer out to nab an asian gangster in a sting operation. The sting operation goes horribly wrong, with many people dead, and Richard pins the blame on Jiuan. As the requisite confused sidekick (this kind of movie always has either a confused sidekick or a wacky sidekick), Bridget Fonda shows up as a prostitute under Richard's thumb (he's kidnapped her daughter and forced her into the world's oldest profession) who just happened to witness the sting operation gone bad. Now, this unlikely duo must work together to clear his name and retrieve her daughter.

Kiss of the Dragon was directed by newcomer Chris Nahon, but producer and co-writer Luc Besson's fingerprints are all over it. Besson's signature style is intact, complete with exotic foreign locations and kinetic (and very violent) action sequences. Karyo's ultra-evil cop could essentially be seen as a carbon-copy of Gary Oldman's character in Besson's The Professional - except with a French accent. But where Nahon fails (and Besson likely would have succeeded) is in the expository scenes. When people aren't fighting or shooting at each other, the pace of the film comes to a dead halt. There's a lengthy stretch involving Fonda and Li getting to know one another - a section of the film that goes on far too long and could have easily been trimmed. When you start off a film with such eye-popping action, it's generally not a good idea to dwell on character development and plot. This isn't exactly The Dirty Dozen (a film whose action sequences were perfectly complemented by scenes of male bonding).

Li has smartly decided to eschew the all-too-fashionable use of wires for the fight scenes in favor of old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. Far too many films rely on wires (even Li's Romeo Must Die was excessively wire heavy), so what a relief it was to discover that some action flicks are still willing to ground its characters and have them beat the holy crap out of each other. And make no mistake about it, it's the action sequences that make Kiss of the Dragon worth seeing (the first 20 minutes alone are worth the price of admission) .Throughout the film, Li dispatches various bad guys through increasingly inventive methods - he attacks two hired goons with hot irons, he kicks a pool ball at a villain's head, he fights a roomful of cops armed with kung fu-type sticks - to name a few. And unlike a Jackie Chan movie, his opponents really get hurt. This is not a movie for the squeamish.

Kiss of the Dragon provides enough thrills and rousing action sequences to more than warrent a recommendation. And in a summer filled with lame action/adventures - Tomb Raider and The Mummy Returns to name the most prominent - Kiss of the Dragon emerges victorious.

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