"You know those movies, with Chinese guys kicking and screaming all the time?" a woman named Jessica asks in "Kiss of the Dragon." Yes, Jessica, we do know those movies, and this is one of them.
The latest example of the mainstreaming of Asian action stars, "Kiss of the Dragon" is a vehicle tailored to the talents of Jet Li, who produced the film and came up with its story, about a Chinese secret agent trapped in Paris, in addition to taking the lead role.
A major player in Asia since the success of his 1994 "Fist of Legend," Li came to Hollywood's attention with a gangbusters cameo in "Lethal Weapon 4." Next came the forgettable "Romeo Must Die" and now here's this old-fashioned martial arts programmer, a hard-core action film for hard-core action junkies.
Hong Kong martial arts films have always had two main strains, the acrobatic flying through the air that Western audiences sampled in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and the fists and kicks of fury championed by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and now Mr. Li.
Like Bruce Lee, Jet Li has an exceptionally boyish demeanor, the look and affect of a polite, soft-spoken altar boy, so bland he won't even risk drinking bubbly water. Li's face gives very little away, but he can look implacable when he needs to and he doesn't so much as blink no matter how high the odds rise against him.
On the other hand, Li's hands do have the speed and power of lethal weapons, his legs can direct pool balls with total accuracy, and his fight scenes, worked out with the help of veteran action director Cory Yuen, completely capture our attention.
Which is a good thing, because the non-fighting parts of "Kiss of the Dragon" are, despite the presence of co-star Bridget Fonda, completely non-compelling. It's a proud convention in films like this for fans to mark time during exposition, waiting patiently for the action to start up again, and "Kiss" is very much in that tradition.
Li plays Chinese operative Liu Jiuan, called to Paris to help a thuggish French police official named Richard (Tcheky Karyo) in the capture of a big-time drug dealer. It sounds fairly standard, but then, in the parlance of the trade, a situation develops.
First the drug dealer decides to cavort with a pair of prostitutes, including Fonda's Jessica. Then Richard, who insists on calling Liu Jiuan Johnny Boy, goes violently berserk, creating an awful situation for which he promptly blames Johnny Boy, who must run and hide in a city he's never set foot in before.
Fortunately (for him, though not for us), our hero runs into Jessica. She turns out to be an ex-addict from North Dakota put out on the street by the nefarious Richard, who calls her "my poor little farmer's daughter" and keeps her in line because (sad but true) he's somehow gotten legal control of her cute little daughter.
As directed by newcomer Chris Nahon and written by French director Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen (who collaborated on Besson's tedious "The Fifth Element"), "Kiss" insists against the evidence of our senses that there's a powerful attraction between the nosy, chatty Jessica and the monosyllabic Johnny Boy. In reality there's more physical chemistry between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat than between these two.
"Kiss of the Dragon" has better luck with its action sequences, including two that are especially acrobatic. One involves a pitched battle on one of the bateaux-mouches (tour boats) that travel the Seine, the other has our hero taking on an entire class of martial arts adepts all decked out in their traditional white garments.
Li's opportunistic Chinese agent makes use of anything that's handy, from a French flag to laundry irons to a pair of chopsticks, utilized in a way Mr. Chow would not approve of. Li's weapons of choice, however, are tiny acupuncture needles Velcroed to his wrist that are devastating when applied to secret pressure points. Kids, please don't try this at home.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, language, some sexuality and drug content. Times guidelines: Even Jet Li says the violence is too intense for kids.
'Kiss of the Dragon'
Jet Li: Liu Jiuan
Bridget Fonda: Jessica
Tcheky Karyo: Richard
Burt Kwouk: Uncle Tai
Twentieth Century Fox presents a Europa Corp. production, in association with Quality Growth International Ltd., Current & Immortal Entertainment and Canal+, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Chris Nahon. Producer Luc Besson, Jet Li, Steven Cashman, Happy Walters. Screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen, based on a story by Jet Li. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor Marco Cave. Action director Cory Yuen. Costume designers Pierre Bechir, Anne Thiellement. Music Craig Armstrong. Production designer Jacques Bufnoir. Art director Frederic Bernard. Set dresser Marie-Noelle Giraud. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In general release.