Kiss of the Dragon delivers Chinese martial-arts import Jet Li to American theatres once again, in what threatens to be another action fiesta consisting of noisy fighting sequences and long stretches of sleepy character/plot filler. Kiss dodges that bullet, by keeping things achingly simple and by finding a pleasing balance between camp and sincerity. This is a movie unafraid to revel in its own inherent silliness, and surprisingly restrained in the way it manages its characters' emotions. It's not often in an action flick as big and loud as this that the most intimate gesture between the male and female lead is a gracious offering of brightly colored shrimp chips.

Such small, tentative movements are what make Kiss of the Dragon's filler scenes more than just a way to bide time before the next big fight sequence. The solid if unremarkable script by action director Luc Besson and Robert Kamen (from a story by Li) is helped by the chemistry between Bridget Fonda and Li, whose diametrically opposed personalities create a pleasing tension that, thankfully, is never fully resolved. Liu Jian (Li) is a police officer from China sent to Paris to assist in the capture of an international drug trafficker, and he finds himself framed for the trafficker's murder by a viciously corrupt French police official named Richard (played with scenery-eating relish by Tcheky Karyo). Jessica, the prostitute played by Fonda, has a tangential relationship to the frame-up and a direct relationship to Richard, who has forced her into prostitution while holding her daughter captive in an orphanage.

That gives Jessica and Liu Jian a matching goal, even though it takes them a while to figure that out. Fonda has the unenviable task of doing the hooker with a heart of gold bit, but she acquits herself nicely by effectively mixing toughness and vulnerability--the strong, pleasant personality she tries to put forth always seems as if it's just about to fall apart. Fonda plays her role to the polar opposite of Li, whose emotions, basic as they are, are right out in the open, and he conveys them in the smallest of ways. Together they make a surprisingly likeable pair, and the writers seem to understand that quickly consummating such a relationship, as films of this ilk are prone to do, leaves it with little place to go.

That is what makes Kiss of the Dragon a more fluid experience than you'd expect, since the scenes that take place between the action have more life than usual. The action sequences themselves, though never exactly transcendent, are professionally executed and conceived. Li predictably looks a mite more comfortable expressing his emotions with his legs and fists, and tears his way through all manner of hotel rooms and riverboats and office cubicles with a fun sense of flair. Director Chris Nahon sometimes flubs the spatial relationships (at one point he cuts from Li climbing underneath a bridge directly over a river to kicking his way through a wooden wall into a commuter tunnel) and the editing occasionally has a tough time keeping up with the movement, but overall his action sequences do the job of excitement-delivery, and he never hesitates to go over the top in surprising, humorous ways. Where Nahon and the writers should get the most credit, however, is in having the gall to put scenes like these in the same movie with the quieter material, and the capacity to make it somehow cohere.

--David Luty