Pretty clever, the title of the new martial- arts action flick starring acrobatic Chinese sensation Jet Li. Evoking the iconic Enter the Dragon and following the mad crossover success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, any mention of a winged serpent augurs particularly well. Kiss of the Dragon, a serviceable, strenuously hard-boiled contemporary caper set in a grimy, amoral Paris of hookers, punks, and corrupt cops, is nothing at all like Ang Lee's romantic, Oscarific success set in a traditional China of rituals and swordplay. But the two movies share a certain spirit of cultural globalization in the service of making American stars out of celebrated Chinese martial artists.
With Kiss, the spotlight swivels to Jet Li, a fleet performer with a highly appealing demeanor of patient, quizzical intelligence. Li made his American debut three years ago in Lethal Weapon 4 -- he was the only effective weapon in the fight to keep the rusty Richard Donner franchise alive -- but he was nearly speechless, having not yet successfully kickboxed with En-glish. Li upped his mastery of the language last year in Romeo Must Die. But it's only now, speaking with fluency and precision, that the compact, handsome star gets to display the range of his capabilities, both as a particularly balletic, concise physical artist and as a persona: The Li hero is trustworthy, loyal, dignified, self-contained, and so economical, he can dispatch a roomful of adversaries without breaking a sweat, much as Zhang Ziyi did while holding a cup of tea in Crouching Tiger.
In Kiss of the Dragon (the exportable, generic title relates arbitrarily to the hero's wizardly expertise with acupuncture pins), the star plays Liu Jiuan, a Chinese government agent who arrives in Paris on an assignment so top secret, it takes a while to figure out how the game is to be played. Liu's contact is Richard (The Patriot's Tcheky Karyo), an explosive French police chief who stinks of sadism: Richard's sharky gray suit looks evil, the geometrical stubble on his jaw looks evil, and he's first seen pulping an already crumpled victim in that most sinister of tough-guy settings, a hotel kitchen.
Before long, Richard has turned his psychopathic anger on Liu himself. And, in the course of making sense of the baffling Parisian pickle in which he finds himself, the Chinese visitor in the City of Light meets up with corn-fed Jessica (Bridget Fonda), a bruised young American woman stumbling through the ill-lit, vice-ridden backstreets of Paree, where Richard -- an exceedingly busy bad cop -- has hooked her on heroin, forced her into prostitution, and abducted her little daughter.
Kiss of the Dragon is directed by Chris Nahon, a French commercial filmmaker making his feature debut, and the story is by Li himself. But the movie's sensibilities belong above all to Luc Besson, the compellingly brash, Hollywood-besotted French director of La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, and The Professional. Besson produced Kiss and cowrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen, and as with those previous productions, he's high on the romance of the underbelly, the lure of the American-style taciturn loner. Besson's Paris is a city of iconic settings turned sinister -- a Metro station, a tour boat on the Seine, the Eiffel Tower. The inventive adversaries, meanwhile, are icons of a different sort: terrifying white goons with bleached coifs, an impossibly well-muscled black superman, furious thugs with huge guns. (The nimble action choreography is by Cory Yuen, who also worked with Li on Lethal Weapon 4.)
This is all grimy, guy-on-guy fun, right down to the fevered, bad-English dialogue. But there's one crucial fight Liu can't win, and neither can Jet Li. ''My life is not some fairy tale! My life is hell!'' Jessica the unwilling streetwalker whines, her eyes black-rimmed with misery and eye shadow. She's a sad, strung-out American girlie, a female stock character of a familiar, helpless sort, and Fonda doesn't know what to do with her. Too wan to play her as a really desperate single mother, too stiff to play her as a really unstrung skank, the actress makes the faces and gestures of degradation without letting herself get dirty enough. This leaves Li to kick in the air by himself. Fortunately, he's magnetic enough to take on Paris -- and Hollywood -- all by himself