Liu Juan (Jet Li) arrives in Paris, France, from Beijing, China on a mission, and after checking in with the shopkeeper Uncle Tai (Burt Kwouk) he gets the word to head off to a swanky hotel to see if he can meet his contact. Once there, he has a note to go to the bar, where a pilot tries to start conversation with him which he is not interested in until he realises this man has a message for him: go to the men's toilet. Inside, there are three heavies who make sure he is not carrying a wire and escort Juan to their boss, Richard (Tchéky Karyo) who is preparing for a job - but when things do not go to plan, Juan finds himself bearing the brunt of the violent Richard's wrath...
Jet Li's time in Hollywood did not last an enormous amount of time, but he packed a lot of activity in when he did even if his dedicated fans tended to prefer his Hong Kong work as a rule. Kiss of the Dragon was an exception to that lack of convincing his followers, as it was pretty well received, perhaps because he had a more major hand in crafting the vehicle for himself than his other American films, having concocted the story. But technically, perhaps, this was not a Hollywood movie; it had American money behind it and featured a cult American star as the leading lady, yet it was one of that seemingly endless stream of Luc Besson action flicks so was as much French.
Besson had a workaholic's habit of putting his stamp on practically everything he produced, never mind directed, and you would often see his name credited as screenwriter on these efforts, though precisely to what degree he was coming up with his own material and how much he was taking credit for his underlings' work was a bone of contention. He would have other matters to worry about as his career progressed, but nevertheless, his French action brand generated a following among fans who appreciated its glossy "house style", all sleek, self-consciously cool, and featuring regular breaks for choreographed violence that had done wonders for stars like Jason Statham.
Or Liam Neeson, for that matter, with Jet Li being somewhere between those two in his filmography when he made Kiss of the Dragon: by no means a newcomer, but not quite a veteran looking to revitalise his standing in the star wattage stakes. Perfect for Besson to cash in, then, which he did here in a manner that was largely marked out from the other items in this stable by its willingness to go further in the nastiness quotient than many of its screen brethren. It wasn't wholly unsentimental, there remained a small child to be rescued before the end credits rolled, but it made blatant that Richard and his army of henchmen were a bad bunch of blokes, Karyo taking his cue from Gary Oldman's signature bad guy in Leon to display an almost pantomime villain, even if he wasn't funny in any way.
Of course, making the antagonist as evil as possible was a shorthand in action movies for how much of a struggle the hero will have to survive if he wants to prove himself in the eyes of the audience worthy of tracing him on his journey, and this was little different. The martial arts and stunts would be where the most interest lay, and Li was keen not to rely too much on wires, so with Cory Yuen choreographing it was certainly the real deal as far as the physicality went. What a pity the usual bugbear of Hollywood action affected this too, the fast cutting intended to make the thrills more thrilling and amp up the adrenaline rate which in effect made it look as if the fights were composed one shot at a time rather than a series of continuous moves. Time and again this was criticised, and it made no difference, the "one shot, one hit" style endured. To compensate, Bridget Fonda, the aforementioned American star, was surprisingly skanky as the female lead, playing one of Besson's hookers with a heart of gold, but in one of her final roles added considerable personality to offset Li's more diffident persona, his use of acupuncture a novelty at least. Music by Craig Armstrong.