As the first fifteen minutes of 'Kiss of the Dragon' strolled confidently across my HDTV, the martial arts film aficionado in me sat up and took notice. Over the last decade, there have been a rash of films that have stripped the genre of its Eastern soul, thanks to over-anxious American and European production companies. For fifteen glorious minutes, I thought 'Kiss of the Dragon' would be one of the few films that have managed to break away from the corporate boardrooms from whence they were hatched. Instead, I soon fell back against my couch with the cold realization that I was in for yet another incoherent excuse to bring an Asian superstar into an inhuman number of fight scenes without any consideration for genre individuality or innovation.
The story centers on Liu Jian (Jet Li), a Hong Kong intelligence officer who is sent to Paris to help the vice squad capture a Chinese drug lord and the mysterious official in his employ. Unfortunately, the wolf in sheep's clothing is Richard (Tcheky Karyo), the head inspector of the vice squad. Richard and his police cronies have the drug lord killed and clumsily attempt to pin his death on Liu Jian. Escaping with a tape of the actual killing, Jian finds refuge with an American-born prostitute named Jessica (Bridget Fonda) who has her own motivations for exposing Richard as a criminal mastermind.
Beyond a striking lack of originality, several things really ruined 'Kiss of the Dragon' for me. First off, the intriguingly subtle opening moments present us with a fish-out-of-water story that focuses on a humble hero coming to a strange land. But after this brief introduction, we're dragged from dull chase scene to dull chase scene as the invincible Jian hops about Paris, putting every police officer (crooked or straight) into a full body cast. The plot and logic holes in the story become distracting, and there's little pay-off beyond watching the unarmed Li consistently have his way with an entire room full of gun toting thugs. Even Li's action-heavy roles in recent films like 'Hero' and 'Unleashed' had a character-centric focus that's sorely missing in 'Kiss of the Dragon.' More upsetting, there are an abundance of scenes (the director calls them "homages" during the commentary) that owe their complete existence to producer Luc Besson's 'The Professional,' a superior film in all regards.
But the film's long list of failings don't end there -- 'Kiss of a Dragon' also features Bridget Fonda as perhaps the most unconvincing hooker of all time, amateur vocal delivery from a majority of the supporting cast, an inspector who tries to keep things quiet but leaves a trail of civilian bodies in his path, unrealistic stunt work that relies heavily on wires, clinically retarded henchmen that all seem to have conveniently advanced martial arts training, and a police force that catches up with Li so often they must be able to find a needle in a haystack in three minutes flat.
To be fair, 'Kiss of the Dragon' does boast a series of wonderfully choreographed fights between Jet Li and his increasingly difficult opponents, which are a riot to watch. Every time Li's rough and explosive skills were on display, I found myself recalling Bruce Lee and the similarly superhuman blows he showcased in his classic films. There were also a few entertaining additions worth noting, including Jian's use of acupuncture needles in combat, his environmental interaction, and a battle with a pair of albino twins that easily trumps the same fight in 'The Matrix: Reloaded'. I also loved the quiet scenes with Li, but unfortunately they were too underwritten and infrequent to be effective on any level.
In the end, however, aside from some thrilling fight choreography, I'm sorry to say that there really isn't much to like about this film.
Presented in 1080p with the MPEG-2 codec, 'Kiss of the Dragon' is a visual mess. This is the first time I've ever seen such a thing, but the standard-def edition of this film has a higher quality print that's shockingly more stable.
The first thing you'll notice on this high definition transfer is that there is a green sheen overlayed across the entire palette of the film. This one was so bad that it sent me bounding behind my HDTV to make sure something wasn't wrong with my setup. The green haze bleaches explosions into dull yellow flames, transforms skin tones into flat and sickly plastic, and mucks up outdoor scenes with pale skies and repulsively unnatural plant life. Once you get used to 'Kiss of the Dragon' taking residence with Agent Smith inside the matrix, you'll find yourself distracted by the dirt, scratches, and white speckles that haunt your screen. More vibrant than the film itself, these blemishes appear en masse in the surveillance room during the hotel assassination scene, in the inspector's car during a chase into a French tunnel, in the skies of almost every wide shot of Paris, and -- most distinctly -- during the scene in which Jian is threatened by Jessica's pimp. Keep peering through the thin veil of salt and pepper as Jian battles this shirtless fighter and you may even catch image trails on his arms and legs that cause the entire image to stutter.
As you work to ignore the substandard print, you'll notice the inconsistent contrast levels throughout the movie, sometimes from shot to shot. Take note of the bright walls when Jian is attacked in the bathroom near the beginning of the movie -- you can clearly see the transfer is unable to stabilize the shot's brightness and it produces an effect similar to the fluttering you see when staring at a florescent light bulb.
Worst of all, the transfer exhibits washed out colors, a softness that eliminates fine detail, and the visual quality of an eighties flick at best. This is best exemplified by the hospital scene where Jian has a conversation with an injured Jessica -- the image is so flat that all dimension is lost and nothing on the screen attracts your attention. There are rare instances of nice color saturation, such as Jessica's red leather coat in Chinatown, but moments later, pools of blood are dull and practically black. Overall, my experience watching 'Kiss of the Dragon' on Blu-ray was reminiscent of going to the dollar theater when I was in high school and watching a tattered print that had already made its rounds at more prominent theaters in the area. It's that bad.
The DTS HD 5.1 master audio track was the one highlight of this release. This lossless presentation is well constructed and brings a nice definition to the film. Destruction and body blows resonate around the soundfield with a welcome degree of accuracy for an action film. Between all of the wanton chaos and automatic weapon fire, the sound mix makes full use of each speaker and I was impressed with the simultaneous layering of a variety of sounds. Dialogue is nicely rounded and appeared from multiple directions, depending on the camera angle. The film occasionally relegates everything to the front speakers but it never flattens the soundscape in any way. Most impressively, the sound effects of punches, kicks, misses, and impacts all register with a nice degree of realism that never feels exaggerated like many films in the genre. Shattering glass and splintering wood sometimes sound a little light and tingy, but that's a minor flaw that only the pickiest audiophiles will take issue with. Also of note, like other earlier Fox releases, the commentary track plays at a drastically lower volume than the film and the menus. Be careful if you access any of the menus after listening to the commentary -- you'll wake everyone in the house.
The only complaint I have concerns the film's restless soundtrack. The grinding rap and hip-hop pieces don't seem to match the tone of the film, and instead seem tacked on to provide an urban appeal to teenagers in the audience. I'm personally a fan of both of these musical genres (particuarly good ole gangsta rap), but the filmmakers would have been better served finding some distinctive hip-hop artists that might have elevated the movie instead of pandering to the least common denominator.
The only feature retained from the overstuffed standard-def DVD edition of the film is a commentary track with Jet Li, Bridget Fonda, and Director Chris Nahon. Each of these participants were recorded separately and edited together into one track. Nahon's unfamiliarity with the English language keeps him silent for most of the film, but I wish someone would've thought to subtitle a French commentary track so he could express his thoughts more regularly. On the opposite side of the coin, Bridget Fonda talks too much, spending a majority of her time pointing out Jet Li's undeniable talent.
But nevermind Nahon and Fonda -- Jet Li is the real meat and potatoes of this commentary track, and whether you enjoyed the movie or not, he alone makes this one worth a try. In a series of intriguing and lengthy comments, he discusses character decisions and development, the cultural differences between Paris and Hong Kong, his involvement with Luc Besson, and his views of the clashes between Asian cinema and Hollywood. Best of all are the instances where Li elaborates on the attributes that make a successful martial artist. He explains fighting technique, style choices, the ways in which he approaches cinematic fight choreography, and the things he would do to ensure his victory in an actual fight. Li is informative, funny, and a blast to listen to, especially if you watch a lot of his films. For those of you worried about his accent, you should know that his English is very refined and you'll have no trouble understanding everything he says.
I wish Li's commentary could have been enough to raise my opinion of the entire supplemental package, but there's just too much missing from previous editions to warrant a higher score. If you're a fan of the film, check out the standard-def DVD as it includes this commentary, several documentaries and featurettes, deleted scenes, and more.
My love for the martial arts genre couldn't save 'Kiss of the Dragon' from faulty logic, implausibility, and poor writing. While I enjoyed the terrific fight scenes, the power of Jet Li's kung-fu, and an impressive audio package, I was often distracted by the worst high definition video presentation I've ever encountered. Supplement-wise, Jet Li's captivating commentary discussions were a nice surprise, but there were too many missing features from the standard-def DVD to warrant any gratitude from me. If you enjoy the film, do yourself a favor: save a few bucks and buy the standard edition DVD -- you'll be much happier with your purchase.