The word on the street is…Romeo Must Die.
I could be wildly off base here, but I somehow question whether blazing martial arts action, urban crime syndicate warfare, sports industry skullduggery, and throbbing hip-hop music were exactly what old Willie Shakespeare had in mind when he set quill to parchment and came up with Romeo and Juliet.
But that's all right. He wasn't thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio either.
Facts of the Case
Warring families have been part of human history from time immemorial: Montague and Capulet, MacDougall and Bruce, Hatfield and McCoy. On the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay in the present day, the feuding clans are the Sings, led by Hong Kong expatriate Sing Ch'u (Henry O, The Last Emperor) and the O'Days, under the generalship of stylish Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo, Heist, The Cider House Rules). Between them, the Sings and the O'Days control all of the land on the Oakland waterfront, with assets divided more or less evenly. The relative equality of their holdings—and their firepower—keeps the factions at an uneasy truce.
Peace in gangland is shattered when Sing Po (Jon Kit Lee, The Corruptor), Ch'u's brash son and heir, is found strung up in Old West fashion after an altercation in a casino/nightclub owned by Silk (rapper DMX) who's aligned with the O'Days. Assuming that Isaak's mob is responsible for Po's murder, the Sings deliver a message, leveling with a parcel bomb a barbershop owned by an O'Day loyalist. Then Isaak's son Colin and his girlfriend are hurled to their deaths from the window of Colin's penthouse bachelor pad. Neither Isaak nor Ch'u wants all-out war with the other—Isaak, in fact, desires nothing more than to wash his hands of the crime game and covert his operations to legitimate business—but when family honor is at stake, one does what one must.
Enter Ch'u's elder son, Sing Han (Jet Li, as surprised as you or I that his character's name is not Romeo). Han is a former Hong Kong police officer who's been languishing in prison back in the homeland since his father threw him to the wolves (Han withheld information that would have convicted Ch'u, and Dad let Sonny Boy take the fall) and hightailed it for the States. Upon learning of his brother Po's murder, Han breaks out of jail and hops a jet across the Pacific to investigate. (Something tells me airport security in Hong Kong isn't appreciably tighter than it is here.)
Almost immediately upon his arrival, Han's path crosses that of Trish O'Day (Aaliyah, Queen of the Damned), Isaak's gorgeous daughter. Trish casts a jaundiced eye at her father's underworld dealings—she's established a foothold in mainstream commerce selling fab fashions to the hip-hop generation to distance herself from the stench of organized crime. But like it or not, her brother's murder forces Trish under round-the-clock guard by Isaak's henchmen, led by his ambitious lieutenant Mac (Isaiah Washington, the falsely condemned convict in True Crime). At the same time, Han sees her as a potential connection to his own brother's killers.
As the O'Day-Sing feud boils, sharklike corporate bigwig Vincent Roth (Edoardo Ballerini from TV's 24) is playing both sides against the center, using the gangs to gobble up bayfront property so he can build a stadium to lure an NFL franchise back to Oakland (the fickle Raiders having taken yet another powder, as is mentioned in dialogue early in the film). Han, his detective instincts twitching at full steam, finds himself in the midst not only of a crime family battle royal, but a multi-billion-dollar power play that has already cost his brother and Trish's their lives.
And speaking of Han and Trish, are these two going to hook up already, or what?
Producer Joel Silver (The Matrix) lured Hong Kong martial arts superstar Jet Li to the U.S. to appear in Lethal Weapon 4 by promising to develop for Li an English-language star vehicle. Romeo Must Die was the result of that promise. And as Hollywood promises go, Li could hardly have asked for a more faithful fulfillment. Silver paired Li with the red-hot pop diva Aaliyah as his romantic interest; surrounded him with talented American supporting players including Delroy Lindo and Russell Wong (as Sing Ch'u's main muscleman); signed as first-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak, a veteran cinematographer with pictures like The Verdict, Falling Down, and Speed (not to mention LW4) decorating his resume; and slapped a title across the marquee that made the whole conglomeration sound like a adaptation from the Bard of Avon. Sounds like a sure-fire recipe for success, right?
Except for, well, Jet Li himself, for starters.
Li is a dynamic, electric fighting force on screen, as anyone knows who's seen any of his Hong Kong martial arts spectaculars, including Black Mask and the Once Upon a Time in China series. However, as anyone who's seen any of those films also knows, Li's dynamism and electricity begins and ends with his fighting ability. Off the mat, Li doesn't possess much charisma: he's very slight, especially next to an American cast (one of the characters in Romeo Must Die jokes with him, "You're not as tall as I thought") and soft-spoken, with an undefined, baby-featured face. Unlike Bruce Lee, whose intensity exploded off the celluloid, or Jackie Chan, whose boisterous comedic talent carries him between combat sequences, Li simply isn't a very interesting leading man when it comes down to acting. I'm sure Li's lack of facility with the English language at the time this film was made didn't help his confidence any. (He comes off a tad stronger in his more recent American productions, Kiss Of The Dragon and The One, but not much.) But whatever the cause, when Li stopped throwing backfists and started talking, my attention wandered.
It's clear that Bartkowiak experienced the same challenge, because neither he nor the screenplay by Eric Bernt (Virtuosity) and John Jarrell keeps the film's focus very firmly on Li's character. In fact, for much of the picture, the viewer isn't sure whom the story is really about: Han? Trish? Isaak? Ch'u? The myriad subplots zigzag back and forth between the characters so frenetically it's difficult for the viewer to make an emotional connection with any of them, or for any potential magic between the characters to ignite.
There's another problem. We're set up by the title to believe Romeo Must Die is at some point going to evolve into a love story between Han and Trish. But it doesn't. Oh, they flirt casually, make eyes at each other, and share a chaste embrace or two, but we never see anything that makes us say, "Now they're a couple." Not even a quick smooch. I saw better chemistry in Mr. Buhn's eleventh-grade science lab than anything that happens between Li and Aaliyah. The only way these two are going to see sparks is by driving eastbound out of Reno. I never believed for an instant that Trish was attracted to Han—other than maybe being dazzled by his athletic talent—and I never detected much passion from him either. Any tenuous thread of magnetism between the two may have existed somewhere on the typewritten page, but the limited acting chops of the co-stars weren't able to lift it off the paper and bring it to life.
Which is too bad, really. The late Aaliyah sparkles on camera, suggesting she might, given time, have matured into a credible actress. (For any reader who missed that week on Entertainment Tonight, the songstress and budding thespian was killed in a private plane crash in the Bahamas in August 2001.) And certainly there's no lack of talent in the rest of the cast. Delroy Lindo brings a strong, human presence to the character of Isaak (in fact, he seems such a decent, respectful sort of fellow that you wonder how he became a criminal mastermind). Isaiah Washington is at once slick and nasty as Isaak's right-hand man. (Have you ever noticed how, in every film about gangsters, the boss/godfather figure always has a right-hand man whose not-so-secret aim is to squeeze the head honcho out and take over the organization? I don't know how you'd run your posse, but I know how I'd run mine—I wouldn't have a guy like that working for me.) Russell Wong also shines in his few featured moments.
But these folks are all dressed up with no place exciting to go, what with the pedestrian script and low-wattage attraction between the leads. Bartkowiak's film looks pretty (despite the fact that the exteriors were mostly shot in Vancouver, B.C., not Oakland, as any Bay Area resident who's half-awake could tell you), and the martial arts sequences rock (wire-fu haters take note: moves no human alive can achieve unaided occur throughout this film, thanks to fight choreographer Cory Yuen), but there's too little happening in between the fights. Romeo Must Die provides reasonably competent martial arts entertainment, but it left me far too conscious of how much more compelling it could have been with more action, less convoluted plot, and more fireworks between its stars.
And that whole Romeo and Juliet thing? If this had been the best love story Shakespeare could dream up, no one today would still care whether Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or Edward de Vere really wrote all those plays.
Warner Home Video's DVD arrives in your living room ensconced in the ever-popular snapper case. (Don't get me started.) The disc inside the cardboard abomination features a striking anamorphic transfer, clean and vivid in every aspect. The bold color palette of the film pops off the screen without distortion or digital fluctuation. The darker scenes are equally sharp, with rich black shadows.
The audio track, though, is where the disc earns your money. Huge, aggressive sound shivers your timbers, with bass so deep you could drop a quarter in it and never hear it hit bottom. Every effect the sound crew could devise explodes in the surrounds with crispness and energy. And the music? Oh my. If hip-hop is your groove, prepare to put your hands in the air and party like you just don't care. Featuring several hits by Aaliyah, DMX, and other popular artists, the propulsive soundtrack wails from the opening frame and rarely lets up. (If you're not a big hip-hop partisan, be warned—turn the volume down before you press "Play.") All this commotion tends to swamp the dialogue every now and again; I found myself occasionally having to backspin to catch a line I couldn't make out. But this is an audio mix that demands to be heard.
The quality selection of supplements opens with a fifteen-minute HBO First Look featurette. If you've seen any one of HBO's patented promo-docs, you've pretty well seen them all. It's an overlong commercial padded with innocuous cast and crew interviews. This one, however, features some of the most hideous graphics I've had the misfortune to experience. I think they're supposed to replicate graffiti, but they just look wretched, are nearly impossible to read from any distance, and don't correspond to anything in the film.
Things pick up with a set of four top-notch production featurettes:
Inside the Visual Effects Process highlights visual effects supervisor Barnaby Robson and the unique computer graphics used in several fight sequences in the film. Dubbed by Robson the "Ultra Pain Mode," these scenes employ simulated x-ray photography (think of full-color variations on the moving x-ray shots in Total Recall) to show bones breaking inside a combatant's body and, in one stunning effect, a heart being pierced by an iron bar. Robson tells us "how they did that" in this four-minute short.
Diary of a Mad Bomber (five minutes) focuses on the other side of the movie magic—practical effects (known to you and me as "stuff that blows up"). Tony Laiarowich, special effects coordinator, is clearly a man who enjoys his work, as you'll observe.
Anatomy of a Stunt (six-minutes-plus) is a revealing insight into stunt work, largely because the stunt performer featured is female: stuntwoman Melissa Stubbs. Melissa walks us through the preparation and execution of a fall from a towering building. Very cool.
The Sound Stage is a brief (1:30) clip showing the sound editing team mixing the final tracks three weeks before the film's release.
Next is a series of eight "short documentaries," together totaling about 23 minutes running time. The first five featurettes each show the filming of one of the movie's more splashy action sequences. These clips are unnarrated, using mostly just the ambient sound with an overlay of percussive music. Captions flash across the screen with tidbits of information, sometimes interesting ("149 separate shots were used to create this one scene"), sometimes not so much ("this is Jet Li's 26th film"). You'll see a considerable amount of the wirework exposed, and more than you may have wanted to see of Li's stunt double. (Abandon here any illusion that Jet Li can really do all those tricks himself.) The last three shorts are interviews with Li, Aaliyah, and Anthony Anderson, the rotund actor who does most of the movie's comic relief as Trish O'Day's bumbling bodyguard Maurice.
Speaking of Aaliyah, the singer's fans will be pleased to discover two of her music videos included as extras. "Come Back in One Piece" teams Aaliyah with DMX, the rapper who appears in Romeo Must Die as Silk, the casino owner. "Try Again" is a flashy bit of cross-promotional business featuring Jet Li. There's also a short featurette, "Making Aaliyah's 'Try Again' Video," which is, I believe, the first time I've seen a music video about a music video since John Landis's "Thriller."
Anamorphic trailers—domestic and international versions—and filmographies for several of the players and producer Joel Silver (but not director Bartkowiak) round out the additional content. DVD-ROM aficionados will find a mildly entertaining interactive game and another batch of trailers, including one for Enter The Dragon. (Personally, if I'm Jet Li, I don't let Warner put a reminder of Bruce Lee's greatest film on a DVD alongside my American headliner debut.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a moment in Romeo Must Die that absolutely floored me. Roth, the would-be gridiron magnate, hands one of the two crime bosses (I won't spoil the plot for you by telling which one) a cashier's check for $38 million, which the gangster promptly tucks away. What kind of criminal takes a check? Especially for thirty-eight extra-large?
I don't know if Romeo must die, but Jet Li's U.S. film career will if he doesn't smack it up a notch by getting back to what he does best: kicking butt and taking names. Doing the moony sensitive thing? I don't think so. American audiences don't need to see Jet Li being George Clooney. We already have George Clooney. What we don't have is the Jet Li of his Hong Kong classics combusting and headbusting in English-language movies that truly display his art. Yet.
We won't, sadly, ever get to see the full impact Aaliyah might have made on the film industry had her life not ended tragically. But if she had to leave a sample behind, at least she left one that, while it won't be enshrined as a classic, won't tarnish her memory either.
Death is too harsh a sentence for this minor misfire. Romeo Must Die is sentenced to another trip to the drawing board. Next time, Joel Silver, leave the Shakespeare allusions for a better film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Four Craft Featurettes
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