Ever since John Woo's brand of hyperactive, balletic violence started energizing American movies, action fans have been treated to lots of interesting upgrades.
Those innovations range from the disarmed, comical pseudo-improvisational style of Jackie Chan to the sublime, dreamlike martial arts of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Woo's own quick-edit techniques, perhaps best displayed in "Broken Arrow" and Mission Impossible 2, have drawn plenty of acolytes, like Ringo Lam, from Hong Kong to Hollywood.
The latest is "Kiss of the Dragon," which blends three film styles -- Hong Kong chop-socky, existentialist French drama and oddball American romance -- with varying degrees of success. The chop-socky martial arts scenes look terrific. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll have to appreciate the star (and writer-producer) Jet Li and his graceful precision fight scenes. Li, a champion of Wu Shu, a popular Chinese performance martial art, owes much to Chan but asserts his own muscular style.
Li plays Liu Juan, a Chinese cop sent to Paris to assist French police in an international drug case. The deadpan French drama would work better if not for Tcheky Karyo. Karyo, who normally delivers a good villainous performance, overacts relentlessly. He starts at full bluster and drops below bellow level so infrequently viewers may be tempted to hold their ears whenever he comes onscreen. Playing a crooked cop named Richard, Karyo seems likely to pop a vein through most of the movie, which he spends mostly terrorizing women and children while not pursuing Liu.
Chief among those terror victims is Jessica, an absolutely unconvincing junkie hooker played by Bridget Fonda. Ostensibly she's an accomplice of Richard's, but her purpose in the movie is to give viewers a pretty American face and provide a little romantic interest for the leading man. It doesn't seem like a match made in heaven.
Oh, but that's not really the point here, is it? The point is putting a respectable package around Li's acrobatic fistfight skills. And at that, "Kiss of the Dragon" asserts itself with elan. While Li looks a little foolish in scenes involving romance or humor, his appeal as a strong silent type cannot be denied. Yes, he's a tiny 5-foot-6, but that only makes his leaps and kicks more possible and filmable (look what diminutive size does for Tom Cruise). The direction, from Chris Nahon in his first feature, borrows heavily from American, French and Hong Kong sources, as you might expect from a film co-written by Li, French action wizard Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita") and sentimentalist Robert Mark Kamen ("The Karate Kid"). Li's entry into Hollywood consciousness should raise the bar for his compatriots, and action fans can't kick about that.