by Greg Muskewitz
The obvious allusion in the title of "Romeo Must Die" is Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet." Though neither the main male and
female protagonists are named either of these, the basic skeleton of the Bard's tragedy are here, but without the tragedy.
I'm sure however, that never did Shakespeare see this coming; not just adaptations and transplantations, but the
transubstantiation of his work into a martial arts/gangsta flick.Following along the lines of two fueding families, the press kit for "Romeo Must Die" identifies itself as "two families, bound by tradition, are locked in a brutal war." The two families, one being Asian, the other African-American, act very territorial, and in the opening sequence, one of the sons of the Asian warlord, Ch'u (Henry O) is hung and immediately the blacks are blamed and it's an all out gang war while a white plotter named Vincent Roth (not mentioned in the press kit) has both sides working for him as he tries to buy out all waterfront property so as to build a super-stadium in the middle of the water as he will officially own the NFL.
The African-Americans are led by Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo), who after the death of Ch'u's boy, quickly takes precaution over his two kids, Colin (D.B. Woodside) and Trish (Aaliyah), even though they're the age of adults. Ch'u's other son, Han (Jet Li), or referred to by one of the bad guys as Dim Sung, makes it his quest to find out who was responsible for his brother's death. But along the way Han bumps into Trish, who develop a chemistry, and the two are on each other's side to try to find the truth and get out alive. Of course along the way, many complications arise.
Much of "Romeo Must Die" is heterogeneous; the parts are so unlike however, that it actually kind of works. The beginning is catchy, explosive and loud, but for a while thereafter it kind of drops off and plodds along without minimal development in the story. But then it catches its footing again, and the action picks up where patches of the story leaves you dry. Nothing of "Romeo Must Die" hasn't really been done before. Obviously "Romeo & Juliet" is old news, and the whole gang take was done in the Baz Luhrman version "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," and even down to the Skeletal Vision, where when someone would get hit hard are punctured into something, an x-ray like close up would go through their body so as to see what bone or organ was obliterated. The video game special effect has already been seen in a more detailed and grotesque effect last year in "Three Kings." But there's been a big scarcity of decent action movies as of lately, and "Romeo Must Die" knows how to pump it up. That doesn't mean however, that it comes without contrivences.
As in any other martial arts movie, the fight scenes are preposterous and overplayed; no person has the agility or stamina to continously fight/battle in a serious brawl like that without fatiguing. A lot of the violence is portrayed as being slapstick funny (like the football scene, where Han gets pounded, but then karates everyone up to get a touchdown). Jet Li is not Jackie Chan, and here they don't go for the real thing a lot. Director Andrzej Bartowiak goes for superimposed fight sequences where Li and Russell Wong will go flying through the air with all sorts of twist points and sudden movements on axis which don't exist. It was totally aeronamically incorrect. The effect, when they're using the effect, look fake and sometimes plain stupid. The audience that I was in with seemed to be easily fooled and believed these were real stunts; a real laugh for those with an untrained eye. But even without that eye, it should be very apparent to what was choreographed and staged, as to what was created as an effect. But the choreography was awesome and very taut. Jet Li is an accomplished martial artist, and we know that going in, but who could have expected that Aaliyah could move with such deadly grace. But a lot of the violence that was cultivated had everybody --including the good guys-- unconcerned with the harmful positions they placed others in.
Sometimes "Romeo Must Die" suffers from the general banality of the genre of movie it is, and even though it isn't always successful, I admire it for trying to take on a different spin with the Shakespeare motif. It tried to be creative, and by doing so, pulled itself out of the barrels of genericitity that otherwise would have been stuck in. Of course there are the typical cliché and "big commerciality" that come with this type of movie, and is added on by the fact that it's got two hugely popular recording artist (so you know the soundtrack will be full of them), not to mention that fact that you cannot go two minutes without some loud rap being blasted through the theater (when the movie started, it was so loud and bombastic that the walls and floor were vibrating, no less our hearts). It's got a large market to sell to, but some of it is just out of the way and derailing.
The screenplay was by Mitchell Kapner who half-heartedly wrote "The Whole Nine Yards," but in both movies, he has a tendency to half-do ideas; something that may start off great loses some wind, and upon that revelation, he just sorta abandons the concept. Since "Romeo Must Die" deals with gangs and hate, the subject of the latter is very prevalent and sometimes uncalled for ("So unless yo' ass is black, get on up outta here!"). It provides a basis for hate and racism because we know it is all too real, and it proves to be often daunting. The director Bartkowiak, an accomplished cinematographer makes this his feature debut, and he shows some style, but too much and too bipolar. It's pretty obvious he has a cinematographer's eye, Bartkowiak has photographed such eye-gasmic movies as "The Devil's Advocate," "Dante's Peak," "Speed," "Species," and "Jade" amongst a host of others. Naturally however, he falls suseptible to all the hip and in technical ploys, so perfected in "Dark City" or "The Matrix," but made to look so imiatative here. Bartkowiak hints at a skill, but buries it beneath the event of itself.
Jet Li, whose English skills are much further along than Chow Yun-Fat's, is still somewhat hard to discern at times. But his timing, accuracy, and martial arts choreography are impeccible (except when it looks fake). Li is a good action/stunt performer/star, but nothing beyond. Worth a mention to fizz out some of the hype or talk is DMX's performance, or moreover, walk-on. He's advertised as being a major player in the movie but turns up for a total of three scenes. It's hardly worth mentioning otherwise, and he proves to be a little stiff. Isaiah Washington is on the otherhand, overdone, but at least he gets the chance to let it loose after the subdued, but very good performance in "True Crime." Russell Wong, who I briefly mistook for Li in the opening is more poised, more distinguishable, more understandable, but a lot less present. I have a feeling however that it was to our benefit because I don't believe he would have been able to keep it up for long. On the very positive side is Delroy Lindo, fresh from the bruising and over-riped "The Cider House Rules," as the head of the Black family, is nicely assimilated and holds his ground more than anyone else in the veteran category of this cast. Even more than O, whose physigonomy and devious plotting add for some dissimilitude. However, the newest, and best of the cast is singer Aaliyah! I am very surprised and impressed with the poise and talent she carried herself around in for her character. I can't say I was skeptical about her prior to, because I didn't pay it much attention, but Aaliyah is already an accomplished recording artist, and now a multi-faceted actioneering actress. She more than adeptly handles her lines, delivery and choreography. Though some necessary motivation or fusion was missing between her character and Li's, I very much await an encore in some capacity, and not in concert.
As much as "Romeo Must Die" is flawed, it does it darndest to reach out of the ever-constricting rules of the genre and homages of cliché, it makes progress by trying out something a little different, and something a little more fun. But a mere disappointment in a bay of a few, is the compromised ending which, though closer to "Hamlet," still is hackeyed and even further from the "Romeo and Juliet" ending. Now that, would have been a show stopper!Final Verdict: B-
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1953&reviewer=172
originally posted: 03/23/00 03:31:26