(film review written 7/01)
"Kiss of the Dragon" is one of those good, well-acted, beautifully stylish and intense thrillers that deserves to live in past its few weeks at the box office. Written by director Luc Besson ("Professional") and Robert Mark Kamen from an idea by actor Jet Li, the 25 million dollar picture is efficently directed by first timer Chris Nahon and goregously filmed by Besson's cinematographer Thierry Arbogast.
Jet Li is a star who has been massively popular in Asia, starring in a wealth of martial arts films and often amazing with his physical abilities. Yet, attempts to bring him to the American audience resulted in a rather limited role in "Lethal Weapon 4" and a rather weak film of his own, former cinematographer Andrej Bartowiak's "Romeo Must Die". In "Kiss", Li plays ace Hong Kong officer Liu Jiuan, who comes to France to assist inspector Richard (Tchéky Karyo), who promptly responds by framing Juian for a murder.
That's really about all the plot there is or really needs to be. The remainder of the movie has the two up against each other or in chase throughout the streets of Paris as Richard's henchmen stand up against Li's character, only to fail. There's nothing "enhanced" (digitally or otherwise) about any of the stunts in "Dragon" and that's quite enjoyable. It's just Li, doing some incredible hand-to-hand combat, including one scene where he believably takes on a group of training warriors who all carry nightsticks. The film delivers what is expected - it keeps the action sequences coming at a rapid rate and each scene is often bigger and more remarkably choreographed than the last.
The picture is again, also phenomenally filmed by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, who is a master of the threatening low-angle shot that follows the hero or the villian as they come around the corner. He also gives the film a rather washed-out, gritty look that grounds the picture wonderfully, as well. One of the few faults that I found with the picture was Bridget Fonda's character, Jessica, who is a Midwestern girl forced into prostitution by Richard, who has also taken her daughter. Watching "Dragon" again, I think that it's not her performance, necessarily. She's prepared and there's even some emotional sequences towards the end. Yet, I never really felt that this was a fully-realized character and there are some scenes during the film that I found her character a bit shrill. A few scenes with her and Jet Li have decent chemistry, though. Nahon captures silent moments between the two nicely.
The plot is fairly standard throughout "Kiss of the Dragon", but I thought it was more well thought-out than most of the films in the genre, as was the acceptable dialogue. But, with the above-average acting, elegant and stylish look and stellar action, "Kiss" certainly elevates itself above many of the action pictures that have been released in recent months. One gets the sense that Li is capable of even better, but for now, this will certainly do. Recommended.
VIDEO: "Kiss of the Dragon" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by 20th Century Fox. While this will not go down as one of Fox's best efforts, the presentation does a more than satisfactory job offering the film's gritty images. Sharpness and detail were very good throughout the film, if a tiny bit inconsistent - a few moments here and there seemed slightly softer in comparison.
A few minor problems appeared throughout the movie, but nothing terribly distracting. Some minor print flaws showed up here and there, while a tiny bit of edge enhancement came up once or twice. Other than that, the picture seemed free of any other worries; no pixelation appeared, nor did colors appeared smeared or otherwise problematic.
As for colors, well - this certainly isn't a colorful picture. Yet, the sort of desaturated color look that is presented here is accurate and looks exactly the way it did in the theater.
SOUND: "Kiss of the Dragon" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 on this DVD edition. As one might expect, this is quite an agressive surround-sound presentation, with full-on involvement of the rear speakers during the action sequences. There were a few moments where I almost felt as if the surrounds brought a little too much to the table, calling a bit of attention to their efforts, but otherwise, I thought this was an effective and enjoyable listening experience. Audio quality came through quite well; the film's techno/rap score sounded crisp and rich, while dialogue and sound effects came through clearly.
MENUS: The main menu has some slight animation as well as the score playing in the background. Sub-menus are a bit more uneventful, mainly using film-themed images.
Commentary: This is a commentary from actress Bridget Fonda, actor Jet Li and director Chris Nahon. All of the participants have been recorded separately and their comments have been edited into a full-length track. Interestingly, Nahon is the one who is least interesting of the three and seems to have the least amount to say. Li and Fonda, on the other hand, provide a terrific discussion of acting and the production in general. Li discusses his fighting techniques and his opinions on staging fighting. Fonda is quite funny and provides superb insight into the acting process, talking about how she was able to prepare for the character. Overall, I thought this was a nicely edited and enjoyable commentary that, while not consistently engaging, often was moderately entertaining and informative.
Jet Li: Fighting Philosophy: This is an 11-minute featurette that offers interviews with Bridget Fonda, director Chris Nahon and Li himself; all three discuss the best way to stage action, as well as what it was like to work with the actor.
Corey Yuen: Action Academy: This featurette offers the thoughts of famed action/martial arts choreographer Corey Yuen, who not only discusses his history with martial arts, but also talks about fighting styles and different elements of this production.
Police Gym Fight: Demo: This section includes the final scene from the movie, as well as two demo clips where we watch choreographer Corey Yuen doing the blocking for the sequence. As he stated in the "Action Academy" documentary, these scenes don't just happen and take a lot of planning, which we can see here.
On-Set Action: This is a quick montage of behind-the-scenes bits filming the action sequences.
Storyboards: Storyboard-to-scene clip for "The Laundry Chute" and storyboards for "The Orphanage".
Also: Promotional featurette, production stills, theatrical trailer, 6 TV spots and trailers for "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Planet of the Apes". The one thing that I still wish Fox would do with their releases is present their trailers in Dolby Digital 5.1, which still doesn't happen here.
Final Thoughts: "Kiss of the Dragon" is not substancial nor does it have a great plot. Looking it in terms of the action genre though, I quite enjoyed the film. The film offers well-staged and often superbly filmed action, with solid performances as well as the additional layer that the character is essentially alone in a land he's never been in. It's certainly better than Li's recent theatrical release, "The One", which I found particularly dissapointing.
Action fans who are seeking something a bit darker should certainly check out the film as at least a rental. Fox's DVD offers good audio/video quality, as well as a fine group of supplements. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2
Video 89/B+ = (356/400 possible points)
Audio: 89/B+ = (356/400 possible points)
Extras: 83/B = (249/300 possible points)
Menus: 80/B- = (160/200 possible points)
Value: 83/B = (249/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: *** 1/2
DVD GRADE: B