Kiss of the Dragon Review
There are a few films which, although they bear the credit 'directed by' X, are widely accepted to have been all but directed by someone entirely different, with the eventual film ending up far closer to the producer or writer's style than that of the nominal filmmaker. The two most famous examples thus far have been the original The Thing, on which Christian Nyby was replaced by Howard Hawks (and Orson Welles as well, if rumours are to be believed), and Poltergeist, where Tobe Hooper's dark and twisted vision was replaced by the more lightweight horrors of Steven Spielberg's worldview. (It'd be interesting to see if he'd make a darker film today, given his new maturity as a director.) With Kiss of the Dragon, we essentially have a Luc Besson film that has not actually been directed by Besson, but is clearly indebted to him in virtually every respect, given his credits as co-writer and co-producer.
The plot is, as with Subway, The Big Blue and The Fifth Element, both utterly irrelevant and an excuse for Besson to get on with his real interest, which in this case is for Li to start fighting dozens of villains. The nominal storyline concerns a top Chinese secret agent (Li), who is sent to Paris to liaise with the French police, as led by Richard (Karyo); unfortunately, they turn out to be corrupt, and attempt to frame him for the murder of a diplomat. 'John', as he is christened, flees, accompanied only by a drug-addicted prostitute called Jessica, and violence ensues.
The film is a frustrating experience throughout, as it is essentially a pretty good action film that continually threatens to be something better. The opening 30 minutes or so are a minor masterclass in how to open an action film, as Besson and Nahon move swiftly from exposition to tension to, eventually, balls-out action, with the air of paranoia and violence that typified Leon present. Unfortunately, the film soon lets itself down by forcing a dull subplot with Fonda's character that feels like little more than a weak retread of the twisted relationship between Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in, yes, Leon (which, incidentally, is a vastly superior film to this in virtually every way.) The action scenes are stunning, as you would expect, but Li is such a boring hero that it's hard to feel especially involved in them, despite the superb choreography, which successfully looks back to the glory days of Bruce Lee.
The performances fall into three categories: wooden (Li, and most of the supporting cast), strange (Fonda and Kwouk, a long way from Cato or even Banzai!), and ravingly over the top (Karyo, essentially reprising his role from Jan Kounen's Dobermann, and obviously loving every minute of it). The decision to set the film entirely in Paris was an interesting and successful one, giving the film a fresh and original look that comes as a welcome change from endless generic shots of New York or Toronto, and Besson's script recognises this, helped of course by his regular cinematographer Thierry Arboghast's superb photography. Craig Armstrong's score also does a fine job of maintaining tension and driving the action forward, maintaining momentum throughout.
This is an enjoyable enough film, but it constantly feels like a second-rate copy of Besson's superior work, lacking the humour of his Taxi films or the genuine pathos of Nikita or even the underrated The Big Blue. Certainly recommended for the martial arts lovers out there, given the stunning fight scenes throughout, but the film still feels like a disappointment.
Fox have done a fine, although not perfect, job with the anamorphic transfer. Colours are strong without being brilliant, and the transfer is slightly flawed by occasional slight touches of grain and edge enhancement. Nontheless, this is basically as good as you would expect a recent film to be on DVD.
Oddly enough, this isn't really a showcase disc, given that the action scenes are fairly light on explosions. However, the surrounds are used aggressively throughout, and the dialogue and score are well integrated into the mix.
Fox, so good normally, have rather let themselves down here. The main extra is a commentary featuring Li, Fonda and Nahon; while Fonda is intelligent, articulate and refreshingly honest about Besson's contribution to the film (i.e it's his film in all but name), Li and Nahon say little of genuine interest, making this a bit of a slog. The multiple featurettes provided are of limited entertainment value, given that they all rely heavily on clips from the film and back-slapping interviews, as well as not featuring any interviews with Besson. That said, the footage of martial arts demos may well be of interest to fans. The usual trailers and TV spots round out a slightly weak package.
An enjoyable enough but oddly underwhelming film is released on a technically fine disc that is rather lacking in in-depth extras. Certainly worth a watch, but, unlike its obvious predecessors, this isn't really the sort of film that you're going to watch over and over again.