The story, which is credited to Li, is as patently formulaic as they come: a mainland police officer (Li) arrives in Paris as part of a joint police effort to nail some heroin smugglers. But the French cops, led by a psychopathic Tchéky Karyo, are dirty and have concocted an elaborate scheme to kill and frame Li for murder. Being the ultra-cop that he is, Li foils the setup and vanishes into the heart of Paris to regroup and plan his next step, eventually teaming up with an expatriate American junkie hooker (Bridget Fonda) who can help him get to Karyo.
Anyone hoping for a clear explanation regarding the police conspiracy is sure to be disappointed. Nothing in the film makes much sense at all; nearly every major plot turn is motivated either by coincidence or contrivance. Such shortcomings, of course, will ultimately matter little to the film's core audience for whom plot is generally regarded as little more than mortar with which to hold together the action set pieces.
Unfortunately, those action scenes are also a mixed bag. First-time director Chris Nahon, a veteran of French commercials, knows how to crank up the style and tighten the screws on the car chases and gunfights, but still can't get a handle on the fistfights. Nahon and editor Marco Cave fare better in their editing of the Corey Yuen-choreographed fights than their American counterparts, but still fall short of doing them justice. A seasoned director in his own right with countless Hong Kong classics to his credit, Yuen (also a childhood classmate and friend of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) adheres to a tradition of choreographing for "edit points" which, for whatever reason, are consistently ignored by Nahon and Cave. Fights that should feel fluid and seamless become choppy and disorienting. Only one major fight, in which Li must manhandle an entire karate class, lives up to its promise (though it's clearly derivative of a far better scene from Li's popular "Fist of Legend").
If the dramatic face-off between Li and Karyo seems suspiciously reminiscent of that between Jean Reno and Gary Oldman in Besson's "The Professional," it's no coincidence. Many of the same scenes and plot devices used in Besson's film show up shamelessly here, and to much less impressive effect, though, at the same time, they're not entirely ineffective thanks to very credible performances from both Li and Karyo. Li, in particular, has become markedly more comfortable with English, finally showing flashes of the commanding stoicism and boyish vulnerability on which his persona was first predicated. Fonda, unfortunately, never gets her footing, fumbling wildly to bring life to an inconsistent, underwritten role needlessly tacked on for no other reason than to feature a female lead in what would otherwise have been a decidedly "male" movie.
For all its reliance on cliché and borrowed style, there are some refreshingly original aspects to "Kiss of the Dragon" that fans of the genre will welcome, most notably Li's strategic use of acupuncture needles to immobilize adversaries. Such flourishes are part of what elevate "Kiss of the Dragon" above similar fare, making it feel, on the whole, like a much better film than it is. Starring Jet Li, Bridget Fonda and Tchéky Karyo. Directed by Chris Nahon. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. Produced by Luc Besson, Jet Li, Steven Chasman and Happy Walters. A Fox release. Action. Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality and drug content. Running time: 98 min