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Jet Li gets KISSed

Hong Kong action star continues his worldwide ascent as the next, great action hero

By Craig D. Reid     July 06, 2001


In typical Jet Li fashion, KISS OF THE DRAGON is "chop" full of high-flying action
© 2001 20th Century Fox

All of the hype and excitement from the American press surrounding KISS OF THE DRAGON (KOD for short) is focused on the coincidence that Tcheky Karyo, who plays the lead villain, was in Luc Besson's LA FEMME NIKITA(1991), while co-star Bridget Fonda played the lead in POINT OF NO RETURN(1993), the English remake of NIKITA. But only two people know of the connection between Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL(1994) and the Hong Kong action film DRAGON FROM RUSSIA(1990).



A few years ago, this reporter pointed out to Besson that some of the action bits in THE PROFESSIONAL mirrored several of the outrageous visual gags seen in the Hong Kong Fant-Asia actioner DRAGON FROM RUSSIA. Intrigued, Besson asked to see that film and anything else he might like. The tape also included FONG SAI YUK, SAVIOUR OF SOULS and NEW LEGEND OF SHAOLIN. Weeks later, Besson ecstatically told me he loved the action and that one day he'd do something similar. As it turns out, not only were two of the films Jet Li movies, but the action was directed by either Corey Yuen and/or Yuen Tak, who are now DRAGON's's action director and fight choreographer, respectively.



Jet Li carries a shaken Bridget Fonda to safety in KISS OF THE DRAGON

So as the Hollywood movie machine recycles the elements of Hong Kong cinema, action star Li is poised to monopolize Tinsel town's attempt at Fant-Asia style filmmaking: this year he'll be starring in two major studio films, while executive producing a television series with Mel Gibson. With his riveting visuals and magical displays of pugilistic mastery, Li has galvanized Western audiences for years, and things kick off this summer with 20th Century Fox's KISS OF THE DRAGON, which he co-produced with French filmmaker Luc Besson, who co-wrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen (KARATE KID).



CINESCAPE recently sat down with Li to discuss DRAGON, as well as the truth behind why he turned down MATRIX and his thoughts on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.



KOD was filmed in France, and it's a really a different kind of action film by American standards," says Li in very deliberate and improved English. "I think Americans like to make the big productions with heroes with big muscleslike Rambo, for example, where everyone is bigger than life and saves the day. I came up with the idea of this film and wanted it to be more of a real character, so my manager introduced me to Luc and Kamen, and we sat down and talked about some things."



Director of Photography Thierry Arbogaston and Director Chris Nahon on the set of KISS OF THE DRAGON

Working around the clock, Luc and Kamen, literally within months, came up with a script and started shooting the film in Paris and Switzerland. Li plays Liu Jian, the top inspector in the Shanghai Undercover division, who arrives in Paris on a sensitive mission. A few clues lead him to Jean-Pierre Richard (Karyo), with whom he takes a job. The mission goes horribly awry because of the unexpected arrival of two prostitutes, including Jessica (Bridget Fonda), and Liu falls into a deadly trap filled with conspiracy and double crosses.



"It's a story about a person who really focuses on his work, but he never knows how to deal with women," grins Li. "So a woman comes into his life, and he actually becomes confused. He doesn't know what to do or how to work with her, and he gives her some promise. He later learns that when you give a woman a promise, you need to keep your word. Even if it is against your rules, government, what you stand for and your work, you still need to keep your promise, and you must do whatever you need to do. It's really a unique love story and action film about a normal guy doing his normal work. In essence, he's fighting with himself, which I can share with you is like in a different manner with what I did in my next film, THE ONE [to be released this fall]."



While American audiences may finally be accepting epic Chinese features like Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (a film that essentially bombed in Asia) as mainstream, Li acknowledges that the love affair with sweeping marital arts sagas is one that was just waiting to happen. After all, films of this nature have been the norm in Chinese cinema for a number of years.



Tcheky Karyo plots his villainous plan in KISS OF THE DRAGON

"The timing of CROUCHING TIGER was right," says Li. "As I think you probably know, I was offered the role that Chow Yun-Fat ended up taking. I was just too busy and, of course, was concentrating on establishing a new career in the States. But the American audience was waiting for this kind of film. Ten years agono way. Bruce Lee first brought Chinese kung-fu film to America, and then Jackie Chan, but it was films like MATRIX, X-MEN and CHARLIE'S ANGELS that put that kind of action in and brought it to the average Westerner. So it only follows that an American-Chinese director makes a traditional Chinese film and brings it to the American market, and can bring the martial art film to the next level for the next generation of American audience, and it's not just an art movie. But again (and I know you know this; this is why I smile at you) it's really nothing new. We have seen these films in China for many years and many times, and some better. But to the Western audiences, it's new, and I'm sure the American studios didn't expect this popularity."



As for Li's rumored participation in the MATRIX RELOADED, the actor could not see putting his life on hold for the amount it would take to shoot not one, but two follow-ups a second and third MATRIX sequel are being shot back-to-back.



"In terms of MATRIX, the Wachowski brothers know how to shoot Chinese martial arts," says Li. "They don't need me, and there is no reason to get us all in that film [he is referring to himself, Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei Pei, the villain Jade Fox from CROUCHING TIGER]. It means for over one year of work we have no other time for other projects."



Jet Li battles two masked assailants in the Paris-based KISS OF THE DRAGON

While the physicality of what makes Hong Kong action awesome is becoming a computer-generated illusion, KISS OF THE DRAGON stays true to its roots. What with so many summer movies filled with new-fangled CGI special effectsMUMMY RETURNS, TOMB RAIDER and perhaps the ultimate in FX, FINAL FANTASYKOD is honest and pure. Many of the fights in the film are choreographed in ways that haven't been seen before (which is rapidly becoming a rarity today), making it a virtual surprise anomaly in a summer of one disappointing film after another. It's also yet another film that is slowly positioning Li to take on the mantle of the "next" big action hero albeit one who does most of his own stunts.



"I like Luc's movies," says Li. "He's also very quick with an interesting visual style, and he makes a lot of unique stories about real people. I wanted to talk to him about a man, not a hero, but a real man who is actually traditional Chinese, and not necessarily about someone who is around to save the day."

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