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Kiss Of The Dragon (2001,France)

15/06/2011

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

I remember seeing the trailers for Kiss Of The Dragon way back in 2001 when it was first released. I remember being a little bit excited by the prospect of what appeared to be Jet Li’s first proper go at a Western movie (his underwhelming role in Lethal Weapon 4 barely counts and the Shakespeare inspired Romeo Must Die was pretty poor) and was bolstered by the fact that it was written by Luc Besson, his first foray into action/thriller territory since 1994’s masterful hitman flick Leon. Bizarrely I never quite got around to seeing it, lacklustre reviews and a niggling suspicion that it wouldn’t be as good as the trailer made it look were enough to put me off. It’s recent showing as part of 5 USA’s Jet Li season has since changed that.

Jet Li plays Chinese special agent Liu Jian, sent to Paris to assist with what he believes will be the arrest of a Chinese drug lord as he meets his contact in France. Things don’t go according to plan though when the gangster is assassinated by the very people who are there to arrest him, the corrupt Inspector Richard (Karyo) and his cronies who are his criminal contacts in Paris. When their attempt to frame Jian for the crime goes south he is left the prey in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Jian hooks up with another victim of Richard, hooker with a heart of gold Jessica (Fonda) and they work together to defeat their common enemy.

Regrettably, Jet Li should have paid closer attention to the fact that Western filmmakers are crap at making kung fu movies. With a few exceptions (for example Tarantino and his Kill Bill movies – although they were not shot in the west) Western martial arts films are a mere shadow of their Eastern counterparts. It seems to me that Western directors just don’t get, as a rule, the essence of great kung fu movies. They lack the experience and expertise to film fight sequences properly, they show little understanding or expression of the spiritual side of martial arts but most of all they just lack the guts to do it properly. The main reason Chinese kung fu movies look better, more authentic, more exciting than their Western counterparts is because they actually connect physically with each other in the fight scenes allowing for a lot more options when it comes to choreography and camera placement. In the West, where there is an insistence (which admittedly seems to be changing these days) that the actors look like they are hitting each other without actually connecting it always ends up looking more than a little unconvincing.

This has never been so apparent to me than it is here. As well as some seriously bad cuts that I am putting down to shonky TV network editing to reduce the impact of some of the more violent scenes (it’s only fair to give Nahon, Li, et al the benefit of the doubt) the filming, choreography and editing of the fight scenes is shocking. Now considering that the film was presumably intended, essentially, as a showcase for the ever wonderful Jet Li’s martial arts prowess you would have thought that they would have bothered to get a decent fight director on board. Post Matrix there really is no excuse for this level of 80’s style chop sockery.

Couple this with some bleakly cliched writing and it’s a recipe for disaster. I love Leon, maybe too much, but I certainly don’t want to spend much time watching poor quality rip offs of the premise. A bold claim? Let’s look at the evidence. Corrupt cop with a sideline in drug trafficking as the principle villain? Check. Deadly, seemingly invincible anti-hero whose heart is softened by the plight of a maltreated girl? Check. A scene where said anti-hero storms the villain’s police station headquarters to save the day? Check. There’s even repetition of dialogue and some of the finer details of the set pieces between Leon and Kiss Of The Dragon. Some of this stuff is inexcusable. The things that have been changed are preposterous. The amount of carnage that Inspector Richard (really? Richard?) causes is phenomenal and yet nobody, at any point, questions his competence or the legitimacy of his actions. At least Stansfield’s antics in Leon get a cursory once over from the relevant authorities.

There is a pervasive sense that with his co-writer Robert Mark Kamen (who also worked with Besson on the likes of the Transporter and Taken), Besson engaged in a game of one upmanship for who could concoct the most ridiculous elements to the action. Bad guys pop up with massive, shiny machine guns seemingly from nowhere and happily spray automotic fire in busy hotels with no sanction from anyone (apart from Jet Li of course). In one particularly ridiculous moment that must have sounded good on paper, Jet Li kicks a snooker ball out of a pocket on a hotel snooker table and then proceeds to kick said ball, mid air, with the precision of a sniper’s bullet. It’s a CGI ball and a pointless affectation of a scene. What is it about people who don’t think Li’s spectacular martial arts skills are beautiful and exciting enough without having to resort to such nonsense?

The whole thing clunks its way to a rather dissatisfying and wholly predictable conclusion and really does feel like a horrendous waste of time. Like Jackie Chan before him it represents the early part of a career in the West for Jet Li that consistently failed to rise above passable (although he did return to form when he got back on home turf) and for Luc Besson this really marks the beginning of the end, his career since (wiht the odd notable exception) consisting of a string of this kind of sub-par action flop. Still, it could have been worse, it could have had Jason Statham in it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 17/06/2011 02:13

    I could not agree with you more when you say that western directors can’t make martial arts films, and I agree with the reasons you give as to why. I also agree that poor little Jet is very badly served by most of his western vehicles. You are right – why can’t western directors allow the beauty of his movement speak for itself rather than chopping it up with bad editing and silly gimmicks. BUT I actually really like this specific film – I think it is just about the only decent kung fu film I have seen made in the West (I also love Danny the Dog for different reasons). I liked the way the action was choreographed and shot (LOVE the fight in the police dodjo).

    How can this be, Andy? Your blog makes me agree and disagree with you all at the same time.

    But, as you point out, at least Jason Statham wasn’t in it.

    • 17/06/2011 18:13

      You know, after I posted this I got a bit of a backlash from friends who all said it was really good and I was wrong. Maybe it’s just me that doesn’t get it! Danny the Dog (or Unleashed as it is known in the UK) is also not a film I particularly enjoyed. The fight scenes are way better in that though than in Kiss Of The Dragon in my opinion. More realistic. I think had I seen it ten years ago I might not have minded so much but I doubt it. If there’s one thing that annoys me about it above all else it’s how derivative it is of Leon. Inspector Richard is a hollow impersonation of Oldman’s Stansfield and the amount of little touches that are just rehashes of things in Leon are inexcusable. It also has the same shortfall that Taken has whereby the level of carnage caused by the bad guys seems to go unnoticed by the rest of the French authorities. Like I say though, the tide of popular opinion seems to be against me on this one (although one of the films defendants also went on to say his favourite Jet Li film was Romeo Must Die, so he loses his vote….).

      • 18/06/2011 00:12

        I didn’t realise that I was participating in a backlash! You are allowed to dislike the film. I was just interested that I could agree with so much of what you were saying but couldn’t agree with the specific example (now if you were writing about the apalling Romeo Must Die then I would be agreeing with you all the way. You’re right – anyone who likes this film doesn’t get to vote).

        I haven’t seen Leon, so I, unlike you, I cannot be distratcted by comparisons.

        When I watch Kiss, the thought always does occur to me that Inspector Richard and his thugs do get away with gob smacking amounts of carnage in public. But I have always assumed that Kiss of the Dragon, being a martial arts film, is an exercise in evoking jianghu – i.e. the Paris in the film is not real Paris but a Paris in an alternative universe where outlandish violence happens. I think Danny the Dog does this as well.

      • 18/06/2011 07:17

        You really should see Leon. It’s Luc Besson’s best film. There’s no kung fu in it mind. It’s an interesting point about an alternate Paris and probably a fair defense – it is after all only a movie and a fairly superficial action movie at that and so shouldn’t be taken to task too strongly over plausibility. I wouldn’t level the same criticism at a John Woo film for example but I think the distinction is made more clearly in his films than in this one.

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