Is that what kung fu has come to? Latest American Jet Li flick trying, I guess, to one-up Black Mask. Nothing new here. First-time director Chris Nahon, instead of studying the greats (Li does Lee in Fist of Legend), takes all his hints from American directors working with Hong Kong stars, and so instead of getting the Jet Li of Twin Warriors, we get an Americanized version, which is not to say Li is Americanized (though of course they find a way to call him Johnny in the flick) so much as to say that the direction is like the direction in other recent American-HK flicks. Nahon takes all his cues from The Replacement Killers, and Antoine Fuqua isn’t exactly 1992 John Woo; 1999 John Woo isn’t exactly 1992 John Woo, though at least he knows the source material. Fuqua, a music video guy, destroyed Replacement Killers by losing the action: he fired a lot of rounds, but he failed to ground the action, opting instead for what he considered the kineticism of quick-cut, and for some unfortunate and unknown reason, this, along with early US/HK collaborations like Simon Sez (what?) became the style of the American HK. Simon Sez, made by a legit HK director, Ringo Lam, seems to have been taken at face value by the Fuquas of the world, but Lam was never as much of an action director as a gunfire man. Jet Li needs his directors to have seen his old work.
As if aware of the need for some old-school, non-Propaganda Films street cred, Kiss of the Dragon builds on the rep and skills of Luc Besson, co-writer and producer, and as La Femme Nikita and Leon (The Professional) are thematically the building blocks here, Besson's hand is heavy, down to his favorite gags: the laundry chute, the police station, the elevator kick, the hand grenade.
Kiss of the Dragon does have some news, and the news is the kill shot. If the plot is rotten, the dialogue worse, the camerawork shaky where it needs to be solid (literally, not judgmentally), and the action Jackie Chan one scene and 100% Besson the next, Nahon's Faces of Death interest in the portrayal of the grisly demise seems to be what sets him apart from Fuqua.
The deaths are gruesome, and in fact their over-the-top quality is the only aspect to set Kiss of the Dragon apart. Here are a few: look away if you're squeamish about destruction or giving away the point of movies.
Besson's laundry-chute escape, lifted straight from La Femme Nikita, goes one step beyond: the grenade (missile) doesn’t just force Li (Parillaud) into rapid escape, but blows one henchman apart, sending legs fluttering (?) slo-mo to the ground and eliciting the first of many Eeeewwws from the audience.
The neck snap, a heavy staple of US action film for years, enjoying a resurgence since its use in Total Recall, is used here to serious effect, and Nahon has enough faith in it to use it twice in a single scene, a daring move which is upheld only through very creative use in a WWF kind of tombstone move fairly rare in the "serious" action film.
The movie's point, in a lot of ways, is the Kiss of the Dragon, revealed at the end to be the final kill, when we learn that Jet Li is skilled in the ancient and mystical art of David Cronenberg, and Nahon's insistence on showing us the whole thing, even without any semblance at all of Roger Avary glee or James Bondish tongue-in-cheek, is revealed to be his ultimate justification for making this movie: the willingness to show the killshot that Besson never really quite needed.