A scene from 'Romeo Must Die'
Courtesy Photo
**1/2 stars 118 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Wednesday, March 22, 2000
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Russell Wong, Isaiash Washington, Henry O & DMX


Satisfactory cross-over martial arts rental. Gets a little carried away trying to be innovative, but should jump off the TV screen well.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 08/01/2000


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Bard-spawn 'Romeo Must Die' is 'The Matrix' meets Hong Kong, but should have been much more

By Rob Blackwelder

Most freely adapted from Shakespeare, "Romeo Must Die" is a pounding-adrenaline martial arts action flick with a rival gang romance subplot that seems to have lifted more from "Macbeth" than "Romeo and Juliet" -- mainly that it's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The marquee-topping American debut of Jet Li -- the high-kicking crown prince of Hong Kong kung fu movies and the bad guy from "Lethal Weapon 4" -- this MTV-minded festival of bullets and flying fists is a very slick affair. Taking a cue from "The Matrix," cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (who shot "LW4") makes an action extravaganza of his first directing effort by employing suspension-wire acrobatics and a souped-up version of the now-famous rotating freeze-frame technique to enhance Li's 200-octane fight sequences.

Right out of the gate, Li kicks the asses of half a dozen Hong Kong prison guards, while hanging upside-down, one-legged, from a chain in a torture chamber. The raucous scene turns into a spectacular jailbreak, inspired by Li's desire to get to America and avenge the murder of his gangster brother.

The waterfront turf war that took his brother's life is between an Asian gang -- headed by Li's father (Henry O) and tough-guy lieutenant Russell Wong ("The Joy Luck Club") -- and a black gang (with Delroy Lindo and enforcer Isaiah Washington in charge) in Oakland, California (filmed in Vancouver, a laughable substitute). The two mobs are fighting over extorted deeds to properties where the NFL wants to build an expansion team stadium. It's part of a surprisingly sophisticated and layered plot that may have audiences that expected pure combat talking throughout the pic, trying to keep track of just what's going on.

Soon after Li arrives he meets Lindo's snapping, hottie daughter (singer Aaliyah in a satisfactory acting debut) and, slowly, sparks begin to fly. They're hardly star-crossed lovers, however. They never even kiss. Is Warner Bros. afraid of a little interracial nookie?

"Romeo Must Die" gets more interesting as the plot folds in on itself with double-crosses and inside hits taking out VIPs from each gang -- including Lindo's son.

But while the ambitious conspiracy narrative, the wowing 70mm photography and the ante-upping action scenes are impressive, "Romeo Must Die" just isn't the keeper it ought to be. Hampered by gimmicky, show-off effects (X-ray shots show breaking bones in fight scenes) and a soundtrack of stock "unh-unh, yeah baby" hip-hop that anchors it firmly in Y2K like a pair of cement overshoes, this movie has no chance at gaining status as an action classic -- which is what this story and this star deserved.

Li's undeniable charisma and incredible physical ability carry "Romeo" pretty far, so if his style of rock'em sock'em martial arts action is all you're looking for, it's hard to go wrong with this one. It's everything Hong Kong flicks would be if they had Hollywood's deep pockets -- Li's masterful ballets of fists and footwork, a Woo-ish gunfight, a killer car chase followed by a fight in which Aaliyah becomes a weapon in Li's arms, like a lethal swing dance couple, and more.

But when Bartkowiak took on the Bard, he took on the responsibility to do him justice. The inexperienced director does aim high, but ultimately "Romeo Must Die" succumbs to lowest common denominator syndrome.

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