(In theaters, July 2001) It was midway through the film, when it became clear that it wasn’t going to get any better, that I started musing about meta-text and contextual expectations. Granted, working with an English major colleague has warped my fragile little mind in ways I won’t soon be able to analyze, but Kiss Of The Dragon is such a switch from the usual martial arts fare that it got my critical mind in gear. Most American martial arts fans are weaned on Jackie Chan films, which present martial arts as an acrobatic, amusing choreography. To that, add what I call the American-action-movie-aesthetics, all glossy bloodless movement filmed in glorious hues and carefully sweaty heroes. Heroes are virtuous, heroines are admirable and villains possess a certain evil dignity. Then compare and contrast European aesthetics, with their claustrophobic settings, accidental grime and dripping locations. Sure, our hero Jet Li is as noble as ever, but his awful haircut is an indicator of how unpleasant the rest of the film is: gory fights, a drug-addicted prostitute heroine (Bridget Fonda, blah), uncomfortable settings… at least Tcheky Karyo brings a certain poise to his antagonist. If you want to generous, you can point at a few fun action sequences and argue that this is the best European martial-arts film yet. Unfortunately, the rest of the film plays like too many of those late-night action B-movies with the added disadvantage of being actively unpleasant. Say whatever you want about PG-rated Jackie Chan films or Bruckheimer glossy blockbusters, but at least they don’t actively work at being repulsive. Now, is that a failure of the film or the viewer? Hmmm.