Luc Besson is a French film director whose personal brand of slick action thrillers – including Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon/The Professional – helped define what Raphaël Bassan named the ‘cinéma du look’. It was a perceived stylistic movement shared with the likes of Leos Carax and the late Jean-Jacques Beineix. Besson was so good at commercializing this ‘style over substance’ kind of filmmaking that in 2000 he co-founded the studio EuropaCorp to essentially produce it on an industrial scale. While the company spent its first year focused on the domestic market, in its second it expanded internationally with the French-American co-production Kiss of the Dragon (2001), made with 20th Century Fox. Besson produced and co-wrote it, and Chris Nahon (Empire of the Wolves, Blood: The Last Vampire) directed.
Welcome to Bessonia, an alternate universe to our own where men are professional killers, secret agents, or corrupt police detectives, and women are sex workers with hearts of gold. The entire world is a grim and dirty city of alleyways and back streets, expensive hotels and underground bolt holes. The world is one great sleazy French-American melange of sex and violence, and if you’re not committing a crime you are almost certainly a victim.
Plot does not matter in Bessonia, and it certainly does not get considered at length in Kiss of the Dragon. The film focuses on Chinese secret agent Lui Jian (Jet Li), who comes to Paris to help arrest a drug kingpin only to be betrayed by corrupt police detective Jean-Pierre Richard (Tchéky Karyo). With the help of Jessica Kamen (Bridget Fonda) – an American woman forced by Richard into sex work – Lui strikes back to clear his name and stop Richard’s criminal plans.
Kiss of the Dragon falls into such a generic and mechanical sub-genre of action cinema that one could be forgiven for confusing the storyline of one with another. It essentially stands out by virtue of being ‘the one with Jet Li’, just as the Taken films are ‘the ones with Liam Neeson’, and the Transporter films ‘the ones with Jason Statham’. Besson may swap around the elements from movie to movie, but the general narrative remains. This is a mean world of cruel men victimizing women, where everybody looks sexy, and the plot does not matter as long as people are fighting one another with fists, feet, and semi-automatic handguns.
Jet Li is, of course, a great action star with a wonderful physicality, and Kiss of the Dragon benefits from his rapid-fire martial arts prowess in its numerous action scenes. In some places it actually seems too rapid-fire; in some of the fights it’s a bit too easy to notice the footage being artificially slowed-down to capture who’s kicking who. At the same time the film has a fairly orientalist idea of Chinese agents: not only does Li hide out during the film in a Chinese restaurant, he is gifted with a strange weaponized style of acupuncture that feels weirdly and nonsensically racist.
Bridget Fonda has very little to do here, which is a genuine shame as she’s ably demonstrated her action abilities before (in, of all things, an American remake of La Femme Nikita). It is also her final major film role – after suffering a serious car accident in 2003 she retired from acting altogether.
These sorts of films are entertaining enough, I suppose, although they never stray far from being problematic for all sorts of reasons. In recent years it’s also been hard to swallow Besson’s aggressively violent, sexualized world view, given multiple – albeit legally dismissed – accusations of sexual assault, and the more widely distributed knowledge of his 1991 relationship with 15 year-old Maïwenn Le Besco (he was 31, and knowing that makes Leon a whole world more awkward to watch).