In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
The route of the devout. Not all action heroes know it. Not all of them need it. Some of them couldn’t find it on a map handed to them, let alone plot it in their mind and maintain the destination amid disorientation. However, some action heroes live by it. The route is as metaphorically straight and narrow as it gets, a rigid line from wrong-thing Point A to right-thing Point B. Spatially? Depends on how many schmoes, lackeys and big bosses get in the way.
There are certainly burlier fighters than Jet Li. He fights a good deal of them in 2001’s Kiss of the Dragon. Also more flexible fighters. He faces them here, too. Plenty of taller fighters … and that’s also a check. (Faster? Damn few in Li’s heyday.) But if Jackie Chan’s niche is the apologetic clown prince of combat, an all-out aerial assault is Tony Jaa’s jam, Scott Adkins’s asset is to absorb nearly as many blows as he takes, and Iko Uwais becomes a slam-bam battering ram, Jet Li corners something more elusive, intangible and appealingly vulnerable: No other martial artist has quite mastered walking the route of the devout and feverishly defending every step along its path.
Rarely do you find such expressions of empathy through physical prowess anywhere, least of all in Li’s mainstream-Hollywood efforts. It has been swallowed by sci-fi gobbledygook (The One), shifted to the undercard by marquee matchups (Jason Statham in War and Chan in The Forbidden Kingdom), subsumed by stale franchises (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Lethal Weapon 4), or shunted aside in cinematic life-support systems to sell hip-hop soundtracks (Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave).
Kiss of the Dragon opens with bunnies fervently cannibalizing one of their own, a suitable scene-setter for a remorselessly violent Parisian predicament in which Li’s Chinese intelligence agent, Liu Jian, finds himself (and, to be fair, more than holds his own). But Kiss also finds Li trying a little tenderness in ways all but squeezed out in the rest of his stateside work, always prioritizing naturalism over artifice even when its fights are at their most purposefully flamboyant and flashy.
Of course, by 2001, such a notion already felt a full decade out of fashion. So you’d be forgiven for presuming Kiss is much older on a passing glance apart from its generally grainy milieu. Yes, Li’s strangest Hollywood bedfellow of hip-hop accompaniment cozies up here, too; it’s even produced by Immortal Records co-founder Happy Walters. At least it’s not hogging the covers this time, and the cognitive dissonance of watching Li kick and slap Eurotrash brutes silly while Mystikal raps about, ahem, large-chested women, is more kitschy kick than shameless tie-in.
Kiss is also among the final appearances of Bridget Fonda — Henry’s granddaughter, Peter’s daughter and Jane’s niece, who has forsaken acting for the last 20 years. Fonda plays Jessica, a gullible American woman seduced and impregnated by a smooth-talking Frenchman, forced into prostitution and heroin addiction, and unexpectedly caught up in the same international plot that ensnares Liu Jian. When the corrupt cops who control Jessica also frame Lu Jian for a Chinese crime boss’s murder, she becomes his only ally and avenue out of trouble.
Liu Jian has been promoted five times. No wife. No kids. No exploitable weakness. Just a lifelong loyalty to his job. So his superiors appropriately view his sudden turn toward homicidal rage with suspicion. In a profession with a daily quota of 15 encounters, Jessica barely musters five per week. To Jessica’s handlers, she’s an exotic plaything — the naive American knocked low. The dirty cops also dangle the well-being of Jessica’s daughter, Isabel, over her to do their bidding. But she’s well aware that her novelty is wearing thin to those keeping her alive … and that they wouldn’t hesitate to have Isabel take her place.
Unmistakable affection blossoms between Liu Jian and Jessica, but wisely no physical romance (no matter how much the lyrics of the closing-credits sex jam suggests that will be the next step). Neither is Jessica the gold-hearted hooker nor Liu Jian an emotionless oaf. Instead, Li and Fonda portray a pair of weary, worn-down souls who have come to accept how their bodies are currency, albeit in different ways and in fealty to different systems. Liu Jian and Jessica also know: If they died tomorrow, those systems would just keep on humming.
It’s a connection they’re surprised to realize that they crave, even as it contravenes Liu Jian’s coolly investigative logic and contradicts Jessica’s experience with everyone she’s met in Paris. Most of the ensuing action — expertly conveyed by action choreographer Corey Yuen — feels like an eruption of the calculated risk each has taken to trust the other. It’s certainly a way to dispatch all of the bastards that would just fill the vacuums and voids left by a more lawful response. What’s powerful about Kiss is rooted more in the simple promises that Liu Jian and Jessica make to each other than its otherwise thinly sketched murder plot.
The minutiae of the bad guys’ motivations and machinations don’t matter much after the first 20 minutes, which is one of the greatest opening acts of any Luc Besson-affiliated production. (The legendary, and legendarily problematic, action filmmaker produced the film, co-wrote this screenplay from a story that Jet Li created, and abdicated directorial duties to Chris Nahon.) Small, unassuming and as buttoned-up as the coat he wears, Liu Jian arrives in Paris, connects with shrimp-chip chef and covert handler Uncle Tai (Burt Kwouk), and slices a gun from a compartment in his duffle. From there, Liu Jian liaises with Inspector Jean-Pierre Richard (Tchéky Karyo) at a posh hotel for an internationally collaborative sting operation to take down crime boss Sung (Ric Young).
This setup sure sounds like Jet Li as James Bond. That would jam up this film’s appeal. Unwavering confidence is not Liu Jian’s operative default. He takes his water as flat as the levels on his emotional EQ. Meanwhile, Besson’s usual cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, deploys sly rack focuses to square up Liu Jian’s hyperactive suspicions with our own.
Once Liu Jian sees how Richard runs things, his skepticism is justified. The French policeman is introduced tenderizing a man’s head on the floor of the hotel’s kitchen. Richard also has no problem letting his bleached-blond twin lieutenants pull off a ritualistically sadistic alley-oop where the tall one (Didier Azoulay) holds someone up for the small one (Cyril Raffaeli) to snap their neck with a kick. So yeah, Richard is not exactly on the up-and-up. Indeed, Richard is the one who orchestrates Sung’s murder, frames Liu Jian and pulls Jessica’s strings, and he’s got a regularly replenished roster of reprobates to help him out.
Perhaps best known stateside for his equally cretinous turn in 1995’s Bad Boys, Karyo understands his assignment here to be the budget Gary Oldman. Although not as stratospherically rancid as Oldman’s Stansfield in the Besson-directed Léon, Karyo portrays Richard as an artery of bellowing, bellicose anger on the verge of aneurysm, whether ventilating slightly hesitant lackeys or eliciting squeals of dismay as he learns that evidence implicating him is in the wind.
Liu Jian’s escape from the hotel becomes a skitter-and-scamper showstopper whose endlessly shocking escalation involves billiards, bullets and people blown in two by explosions. It’s an exhilarating sequence, but Nahon, Arbogast, Besson and Li understand the necessary comedown: Liu Jian is desperate, exhausted and definitively outnumbered in a city that could chew him up and spit him out, illustrated by his dwarfing in the foreground against timeless landmarks.
From there, Kiss achieves a bullet’s pace for a series of showdowns between Liu Jian and Richard’s long (and crooked) arm of the law. Liu Jian makes a shatter pattern of a glass boat because the serene alternative would be downright irresponsible. He whips Richard’s rogues with their own country’s flag. At one point, he stumbles into, um, the sort of martial-arts training facility that all police officers have, right? Another flourish: Liu Jian employs auxiliary acupuncture to biomedically bind people up … or worse, as you eventually see in the film’s titular move.
Of course, there’s the showdown between Liu Jian and those twins. It hews as close as early-millennium mainstream cinema could get to the jaw-dropping hand-to-hand combat of later films like Headshot. (P.S.: If you have even a passing fancy for martial arts, watch Headshot post-haste.) It’s also one of few instances where Yuen and Li compromised to include wire work, but only to add clarity to Raffaeli’s kicks that were simply coming too fast. In fact, the entire clash between Li and Raffaeli had to be slowed down in editing as both were whirling dervishes. Raffaeli has popped up in some of the last quarter-century’s most shamelessly entertaining action films like Double Team, Ronin and, as the guy ping-ponging off fences, buildings and John McClane’s car, Live Free or Die Hard. He’s a similarly integral asset here.
Li’s physical movement throughout is blistering and precise. So are his emotions amid the entropy. We always sense Liu Jian scanning for a bullet or blade that will clip him. Eventually, one does, sending him wild-eyed and wounded into the subway tunnels of Paris. At this point, Richard and his rotten gang have murdered Liu Jian’s diplomatic-envoy superior. What won’t they do to stop him? If he’s to survive at all, he’ll have to take help whenever it’s offered to him.
Enter Jessica, whom Liu Jian does not yet know was also there when Sung was killed. Most days, she sets up outside Uncle Tai’s chip shop. And when she notices Liu Jian stitching himself up, she offers her assistance and her ear. Setting aside a few awkward laugh lines where they try to turn Fonda into Phoebe Buffay, these sequences become plausible klatches of conversation to which Liu Jian and Jessica cling because they realize: No one else is listening.
It would also be downright irresponsible to avoid a sequence in which Liu Jian defends Jessica from her violent pimp. But the loyalty to the film’s character work is emphasized by Liu Jian’s thought process. Yes, he utters something badass before the beatdown. But there are pauses in which you can feel him thinking “Why am I doing this?” in a betrayal of what’s kept him alive for so long even as he knows it’s the right thing to do.
Liu Jian rarely takes an immediately aggressive stance because, again, Liu Jian is not an immediately aggressive person. Honestly, you get the feeling he’s never found himself forced to fight so vigorously and violently. Quite frankly, it scares him. So do the consequences of opening himself up to Jessica. Li’s fearlessness to fold all of this human frailty into what is otherwise a furious-fisted free-for-all renders Kiss of the Dragon the finest of his Hollywood outings … and Li an indisputable king of the route of the devout.