Published July 1, 2001
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 “Chinese 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.