Kiss of the Dragon

To the list of things we wouldn’t
know if Hollywood didn’t tell us we
have added this summer the fact that mechanical people will one day be
better-designed than the original, organic models, that the Japanese in 1941
were a noble and warlike race whose bombing of Pearl Harbor was justified but
regretted even as they were doing it, and that medieval sports fans liked
nothing better than to watch the quality shoving sticks in each
other’s eyes while riding on
horseback—though they resented like hell not being allowed to play this
curious game themselves. Now to these bits of information we must add the fact
that the Chinese government and police are honest, chivalrous, selfless and
astonishingly competent while the French ditto are corrupt, greedy, murderous
and astonishingly cruel.

Or so our impressionable young teenagers are encouraged to believe in Kiss
of the Dragon
, written by Luc Besson with Robert Mark Kamen and directed by
Chris Nahon. Who knew? Of course the usual caveats apply, particularly that it
is unbelievably unprogressive to imagine that it makes any difference whatever
nonsense the popular culture furnishes our
children’s minds with.
It’s all just entertainment designed
by middle-aged billionaires to turn an honest profit by beguiling
youth’s idle summer hours with images
of people kicking each other to death. There is something in this belief too, as
the components of the classic martial arts movie, a favorite of the young for 30
years and upwards, are so little tampered with, apart from the fillup of energy
given the stunts by the star, Mr. Jet Li.

Most notably, we have Bridget Fonda doing atonement for the absurdities of
her role as the lethal but still fashionably and femininely maigre
assassin in Point of No Return (1993), which was based on Mr
Besson’s La Femme Nikita, by
portraying the classic woman-in-jeopardy to Mr
Jet’s (or is it Mr
Li’s?) white knight, Liu. She plays
Jessica, a wholesome American girl who finds herself forced to ply the streets
of Paris—and also forced to remain a
heroin addict—by Richard (Tcheky
Karyo, a veteran of the original Femme Nikita), the luridly villainous
French police chief who is also her pimp. Richard gains his power over her by
holding her daughter hostage, but she is said to have been forced into a life of
degradation in the first place by being seduced and abandoned by yet another
perfidious Frenchman.

“Where I come from, girls without
husbands just don’t have
babies,” she explains, for all the
world like a Victorian maiden. Where’s
that? we wonder. The moon? Because everywhere under it these days girls without
husbands have babies all the time. Yet the ludicrously anachronistic spectre of
a tight-knit, puritanical community expelling one of its own for immorality is
also a useful sympathy generator for this kind of movie. Or at least the
postmodern irony of pretending such places still exist is not inconsistent with
the chivalrous impulses that fetch young male persons into the Multiplices of
America. The audience when I saw the film laughed out loud when Liu tenderly
observed to Jessica after a battering by her pimp:
“I know you have had some bad
experiences trusting people.”

But even if this laughter was not intended, it
didn’t seem to interfere with
anybody’s enjoyment. At some level, in
other words, even the most sophisticated of our youthful ironists are still and
in spite of themselves susceptible to the ancient melodramatic devices which
involve strong men protecting weak women. In the same way but from the other
direction, we are treated to the myth of the dedicated crime-fighter in need of
humanization, reminiscent of Warren
Beatty’s garishly retro Dick Tracy
which ushered in the 1990s. Thus Jessica nags her strong silent hero:
“You only think of your job;
that’s all you care
about”—even as his job is the only
thing standing between her (and her daughter) and violent death at the hands
(and feet) of Richard’s corrupt army
of not-quite-so-accomplished martial artists.

And speaking of violent death, the movie takes its title from a bit of
magic” administered from
Liu’s most deadly
weapons—indeed, his only weapons apart
from his hands and feet—which are
contained in a little wrist-bandolier of acupuncture needles. As these can also
magically heal wounds or put people to sleep, the range of exotica associated
with China is meant to reinforce the youthful
audience’s sense of it as a wondrous
place of mysterious integrities. After all,
Richard’s murders are hardly more
telling indicators of his villainy than his dismissal of a prospectively dead
Liu by saying: “With a billion of them
do you think they will miss another one or
two?” But perhaps even a p.c. paladin
from Red China riding to the rescue of a prostitute is better for the kids than
no chivalry at all.

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