ROMEO MUST DIE (2000) **1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on May 14th, 2008
Posted on May 14th, 2008

Romeo and Juliet has to be one of the most used formulas ever within and without of the Hollywood system. Now, producer Joel Silver has decided to take this story and modernize it… yet again. But can this hybrid of black hip-hop and Asian action mix well into a workable story? Not exactly, but it does have some good points that may help boost the Asian influence of cinema further into the Hollywood system.

The first disappointment is that the cast headliner, Hong Kong action star Jet Li, doesn’t enter into the story for the first 15-20 minutes. Han Sing (Li) breaks out of a Chinese prison once he learns of the death of his brother in Oakland, California, supposedly by the hand of an African American crime boss, Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). Han’s father happens to be the Chinese crime lord of Oakland who also seems to be dispatching members of O’Day’s clan in retaliation. Once Han reaches Oakland, he accidentally befriends and eventually falls for Trish O’Day (pop singer Aaliyah), daughter to his family’s rival crime organization. From that point on, action and twists ensue as Han attempts to find the identity of his brother’s true killer.

Jet Li makes another great impression after his first American breakout performance as the villain in “Lethal Weapon 4”. He’s quickly becoming known as the more serious and tough alternative to Jackie Chan with his fast moves and amazing stunts. Although he needs to work a little bit on his English, he makes up for it with talent, decent acting, physical prowess and sheer intimidation. Sophomore actress/singer Aaliyah certainly has the face for acting (the camera seems to suit her well), but she needs some more experience. She, like many singers-turned-actors, suffer the affliction of self-promotion while on the screen, trying to impress the audience too much with their singing, dancing and the “look at me” attitude. The rest of the actors do fairly, but Anthony Anderson almost steals the show as the comedy relief. As one of the O’Day clan thugs, he provides a funny moment every time he appears on screen.

The accomplished Polish cinematographer, Andrezj Bartkowaik makes “Romeo” his first directing effort. He’s not very polished with his directing skills, but most likely, producer Joel Silver hired him because he needed someone who could direct the difficult action scenes involved. He does pull off some really amazing shots, including a new type of effect… This new shot will probably be known as the “X-Ray” because it shows the skeletal structure of the villain as his bones are broken in slow motion.

Hong Kong action films have been influencing Hollywood for a long time now, although the studio executives (and producers like Joel Silver) are quick to take credit for these innovations. Over-the-top aerial acrobatics and outrageously kinetic gunfights have only been recently adopted by American films. The truth is that the modern action film evolved in the 1970’s with Bruce Lee, who redefined the genre. From there we got Jackie Chan, director John Woo, leading man Chow Yun Fat and countless others who injected their influence in the mainstream. Think the stunts and camerawork in “The Matrix” were impressive? Well Hong Kong did it first and they have been doing it for a long time.

It’s hard to tell which plot this movie is trying to rip off more… The original “Romeo and Juliet”? The 1996 version with Leonardo DiCaprio? “West Side Story”? Who knows, it never really turns out right. They even tried to change it up a bit with a forced twist and a different ending. Why did they pair an Asian action star and an R&B singer together? Probably because they want to capitalize on the runaway success of “Rush Hour”, that paired Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker as ethnically mismatched partners. Also, in hiring musicians such as Aaliyah and DMX for their cast, they increase their ticket and soundtrack sales due to fans. Smart move financially, but it hurts the film when the singers/actors can’t really act. However, “Romeo Must Die” is another step in introducing Asian influence and actors to the West. Something we will be seeing a lot more of this year, including Hong Kong directed “Mission Impossible 2” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” due out later this year. Pay special attention to their style.

All in all, this is good, mindless fun. The action scenes are few and far between, but they are spectacular. Jet Li is fun to watch and the action definitely got the audience fired up. It would be a fun date movie for a young couple, especially teenagers since there is no nudity and the profanity is minimal. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a decent time-waster.

Scale of 1-5:
2 ½

Most refreshing aspect of the movie:
The action… which is actually derived from Chinese “Swordplay” films, rather than “Kung Fu” movies. “Swordplay” is the Eastern equivalent to the “Sword and Sorcery” films in the West (example: “Conan the Barbarian”). In these films, the heroes and villains are superhuman and perform impossible feats such as flying, magic and indestructibility. It’s wild and more unbelievable than Kung Fu movies but it’s also more fun to watch.

Biggest gripe:
The acting, the plot and the shortness of the action scenes. Also, this film is loaded full of stereotypes from every racial angle. It seems to promote the idea that all Asians know Kung Fu, all black men are gangsters and so on. Although it serves the purpose of the plot, it just doesn’t seem to promote the image that any of the races are trying to achieve.

Biggest surprise:
The half Chinese/half American actor Russell Wong (from “the Joy Luck Club”). Wong plays Kai Sing, enforcer of the Sing mob and old friend of Han. At 6 foot tall, he towers over Jet Li and almost steals Li’s thunder in the action scenes. I’d like to see this charismatic actor in more upcoming films.

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