KISS OF THE DRAGON – Blu-ray review

It seems like only yesterday when Jet Li picked up where martial arts star Bruce Lee left off. But since his “Shaolin Temple” debut (1982), he’s appeared in more than 30 films, most of them Hong Kong martial arts formula flicks. After a memorable appearance in “Lethal Weapon 4” (1998) came a bigger part in the mass-marketed “Hero” (2003), and you have to wonder if films like “Kiss of the Dragon” and “Romeo Must Die” helped him edge toward the mainstream by getting him out of Hong Kong and into a Western setting. In “Romeo” he played an ex-cop in San Francisco looking into the death of his brother and finding himself smack in the middle of a gang war. In “Kiss of the Dragon” he plays a top Chinese agent who goes to Paris on assignment and finds himself set up on murder charges.

If “Romeo” had too much talk and not enough action, martial arts fans can’t complain about this one. “Kiss of the Dragon” feels like non-stop shooting and martial arts fights, all of them real except for two CGI-enhanced scenes-one where Liu Jian (Li) drops down a flaming laundry chute, and another where he kicks a pool ball out of a pocket and then launches it at his opponent with another kick. There are some nifty fights, one of them choreographed so that Jian works his opponents faces over with hot laundry-room irons, another with grenades, and a great scene in which he takes on three opponents in a baton/ebo fight. And yes, there are plenty of debilitating shots to the crotch. There’s also a ton of indiscriminate shooting of automatic weapons in public, with the French police not all that concerned about passers-by. Most crucial to the story, there’s also a band of acupuncture pins worn on the wrist by Jian, and inexplicably left on his person when he’s frisked and relieved of his weapons. But hey, how else is this saga going to sail?

“Kiss of the Dragon” is based on a story by Li, so he had a hand in shaping the film. So did (“Leon, the Professional”) Luc Besson, who co-wrote and produced it. Alas, there isn’t the same depth of characterization as in “Leon,” and the pairing with a female isn’t as successful. Bridget Fonda seems wasted as a Parisian call girl who’s trying to pay off a debt and get her daughter back. It’s more the idea of the call girl that we’re dealing with, because it just seems like a convenient excuse to give Jian more to do. Not much of a relationship develops between them-certainly nothing even remotely close to the tender relationship forged between Leon and his teen-aged protégé-and it really doesn’t raise the emotional ante as much as you’d think it would.

Tcheky Karyo plays a wonderful heavy, but we don’t get much backstory or information along the way as to why Inspector Richard sets up Jian in the first place, or what exactly is at stake. In one respect it’s simple. He’s set up Jian to take the fall for the murder of a Chinese contact he was supposed to monitor. On the other hand, it’s confusing, because we don’t really get much in the way of character motivation and situational background. We’re just supposed to accept the fact that this top Chinese agent has been set up, that a prostitute who was on the scene when the murder was committed is also in danger, and that the two of them have to run from and/or fight the French police who are trying to kill them, thinking that he really is a murderer. Now, if you can live with that and live in the moment as these characters are doing, you’ll find “Kiss of the Dragon” to be an entertaining martial arts film. If you want a little more feel for why people are doing what they’re doing, or if you want characters to grow a bit along the way, you’ll find it watchable but flawed.

I fell into the latter camp. For me, the lack of depth made it a formula Hong Kong martial arts film set in Paris, but it was kind of fun seeing all of the kicking, blocking, and punching moves taking place in the City of Lights. “Kiss of the Dragon” is rated “R” for strong violence, language, some sexuality (darned little, actually) and drug content (also not much).

“Kiss of the Dragon” was transferred using MPEG @ at 18mpbs, and the 1080p HD picture looks very good. Then again, John J. Puccio gave high marks to the SD release, so the source materials must be excellent. I wouldn’t say that this is one that I would pop in the Blu-ray player to show the upper limit of what Blu-ray can do, but there’s a nice amount of detail and clarity.

The English soundtrack is DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio, and it makes those bullets zing all over your TV room. The sound is bright and full, with plenty of rear-speaker action. There’s also a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 option, with subtitles in English or Spanish.

The only bonus feature, apart from the theatrical trailer, is the commentary by director Chris Nahon and actors Li and Fonda. It’s surprisingly low-key, and pretty average in terms of the amount of information or insight that we’re given into the making of the movie. Martial arts fans will probably wish there was more detail about some of those spectacular fight scenes.

As with other Fox Blu-ray releases, this one has a pop-up “smart menu” that allows you to navigate while the film still plays, and a scene selection that restricts you to up and down movement. You can’t quickly get to the end credits at scene 24, for example. You have to up-click one scene at a time.

This disc, among the first from Fox, also comes with a disclaimer slip: “This Blu-ray is manufactured to the highest quality available. It is possible this Blu-ray disc was manufactured after your Blu-ray disc player. To ensure the best possible viewing experience, your Blu-ray disc player may need a firmware or software upgrade. Please consult your hardware manufacturer’s website for the latest firmware or software version and, if an upgrade is available, we suggest that you follow its installation instructions.”

Bottom Line:
As martial arts films go, “Kiss of the Dragon” offers plenty of action, a few very stylish fights, and the bonus of Paris scenery. Li is fun to watch, but the plot is familiar, the characters are static, and motivation . . . what’s that?