Romeo Must Die

     Let's get something straight: I love a good kung fu movie. A well-choreographed fight scene is a true work of art; a kind of ballet of violence. So I'm not ashamed to admit that Bruce Lee is among the pantheon of film gods that I worship. Neither am I ashamed to admit that I am perhaps equally impressed by Chinese actor and fighting specialist Jet Li; he's practically the modern-day reincarnation of Bruce Lee when it comes to fighting skill and intensity (if you don't believe me, see him in Fist of Legend, a remake of a Bruce Lee film that is actually better than the original). But despite all that, Jet Li's newest kung fu film, Romeo Must Die, just doesn't work for me.

     It's not the first time this has happened. This is Jet Li's second big American film. His first was the fourth entry in the tired Lethal Weapon series. In that film he played a villainous Chinese gangster named Wah Sing Ku. In this film he plays a kind-hearted Chinese gangster named Han Sing. As our story begins, Han is in a Hong Kong jail. It turns out he ended up there because he took a rap for his father and brother, who then escaped to America. When Han learns of his brother's sudden murder, he breaks out of prison and heads overseas to find the killer, only to land right in the center of a war zone. It seems the Chinese gangs are in the middle of some delicate negotiations with the black gangs, who are both in the middle of some delicate negotiations with the NFL. Yes, that's the National Football League. They want to build a new stadium on the Oakland/San Francisco waterfront because a new team is moving in, which means they have to buy some land, so the black guys start beating up the people who own businesses on that land in order to get the deeds so they can sell them for lots of money to the NFL; or rather one faction of the black gang does, but the leader doesn't know about it, and it turns out the Chinese guys are secretly...

     Yeah, whatever. The plot may seem surprisingly complicated and confusing, but you just have to step back, take a deep breath and say to yourself, "It's only a kung fu movie." By which I mean, strip away all the subplots and flashy maneuvering and you'll realize that the basic story is really nothing more complicated than the archetypal kung fu plot: "You killed my master/loved one/brother! I will enact my revenge upon you with my furious flying dragon fists/nunchaku/feet/ladders/hoses/belts/...!"

     The filmmakers have made the mistake of tacking too many complex and ridiculous subplots onto this simple, tried-and-true kung fu formula. Besides the whole NFL conspiracy thing, there's also a love story. This love story concerns Han, son of the leader of the Chinese gangs, and Trish O'Day (played by singer-songwriter Aaliyah), daughter of the leader of the black gang. When they meet, sparks fly, and soon their star-crossed relationship begins...

     Yeah, that story. And just in case you missed the allusion, they slapped on that ridiculous title. But then they didn't even follow through on their lame idea. Romeo and Juliet was all about the passion of young love, but there is no great passion happening between Han and Trish. Those sparks I said were flying aren't flying very far. These two lovebirds never even hug until the end of the film, and most of the time they act more like good buddies than lovers. And Romeo Must Die falls short of its avowed attempt to recreate Romeo and Juliet in one other important way: it has a happy ending. Tragedies don't normally have those.

     Other things wrong with the movie? The dialogue is bad. It's just bad. It's corny, it's hackneyed, it's ridiculous. Tough guys make metaphors comparing people to crabs that can't climb out of buckets. It's bad. There's also a bit too much comic relief in the form of a character named Maurice (Anthony Anderson). Maurice is the archetypal dumb guy who thinks he's all that and a bag of chips even though he keeps making a fool of himself in various hilarious ways. One gets the sense that test audiences enjoyed his goofy, over-the-top comic antics and asked for more. Frankly, I'd like less.

     But, surprisingly enough, the acting in this movie is generally not bad. Despite the fact that singers traditionally make notoriously bad actors, Aaliyah is actually quite believable and even lovable as Trish O'Day. And Jet Li, besides being an astounding martial artist, is a fine actor. He's an extremely likable hero in this film; he's funny in the funny scenes, realistically intense in the dramatic scenes, and effortlessly and unmistakably cool at all times. He also has the ability to convey enormous amounts of emotional information with just the slightest change of expression. He may not be able to speak English very well, but when Jet Li twitches his eyebrow it can mean one and only one thing, no matter what language you speak: "I am going to kick your ass."

     "But Jim," you say, "screw acting! And who cares if the plot is weak and the dialogue sucks? As you keep saying, this is a kung fu movie. Since when have kung fu movies been known for their moving performances, great stories and intelligent repartee? Just tell us about the fighting!"

     Fine, then. The fighting. Well guess what, they messed that up, too. Sure there are some impressive moves in here, and some great variations on the classic foraging-for-weapons kung fu technique, where the fighters beat the crap out of each other using whatever is lying around; that includes belts, fire hoses, and even, in one spectacular sequence, Aaliyah (Han, who refuses to hit a woman opponent, uses the fists and feet of his girlfriend instead). But overall this is just another American movie that doesn't know how to exploit the strengths of Jet Li. Despite the fact that he can perform incredible physical feats without any help whatsoever, many of the fight sequences have been altered using computer effects so that the fighters can perform superhuman acts. Also, during certain fights the camera suddenly becomes an x-ray scanner and allows us to see inside the victim as his bones break. A vaguely interesting idea, but rather over-the-top and out-of-place in this particular movie.

     So Romeo Must Die turns out to be yet another badly-made, mediocre film that is for some reason making a killing at the box office. But am I bitter? Am I depressed? Am I disappointed? No, I-

     Wait a minute, yes I am!

Jim Genzano

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