Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Romeo Must Die

By Marc Savlov

MARCH 28, 2000: 

D: Andrzej Bartkowiak; with Jet Li, Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, Russull Wong, DMX, Delroy Lindo, Henry O, D.B. Woodside, Edoardo Ballerini, Jon Kit Lee, Anthony Anderson. (R, 118 min.)

Despite the cagey titling, Hong Kong action star Jet Li's first stateside leading role has little if anything to do with Will Shakespeare's doomed lovepuppy, and more's the pity. True, Li, as renegade HK cop Han Sing, does indeed fall for the young daughter of his family's rivals (pop star Aaliyah as Trish O'Day), but that's all there is to it, and the requisite philter of poison never makes its third-act appearance. Instead, we're treated to plenty of energetically filmed scenes of Li doing what he does best: breaking oversized bad guys into much smaller pieces, all to a throbbing hip-hop score. The film, overseen by über-producer Joel Silver, acts like it knows what it's doing most of the time, but it still pales in comparison to Li's work back in the former Crown Colony. Films like the Once Upon a Time in China and the comparable Fong Sai-Yuk series remain marvels of low-budget action filmmaking to this day (actually, it hasn't been that long ­ two years ­ since Li wrapped the concluding Once Upon a Time in China IV). Li's roundly praised turn as the evil Asian in Richard Donner's otherwise godawful Lethal Weapon IV clearly brought him to the attention of Silver, who appears to have taken the diminutive fighter/actor under his wing, shepherding him to what must have appeared to be a can't-miss opportunity. It misses, though. The plot of Romeo Must Die is cobbled together from any number of previous HK "honorable gangster" films, though instead of the docks of HK Bay, we now have the docks of seedy Oakland, California. Frankly, that's like transposing the action from Verona to Flatbush, and though it serves the proceedings, it's still odd to see Li bopping around Oakland and mugging it up as the urbanized B-Boy named Han. When his shady brother is killed stateside by his father's rivals, Han (who is such a good son that he's serving hard time to keep his gangster father out of prison) busts loose in a scene that provides one of the film's only legitimate thrills. Shackled upside down and dangling from a chain wrapped around the rafters, Han makes short work of his thuggish guards and hightails it to America, where he confronts his father and quickly falls in puppy love with Aaliyah's Trish, the daughter of the man who may (or may not) have killed his brother. Romeo Must Die goes on like that for what seems ages (at two hours it's a good 20 minutes overlong). Occasional stabs at comedy ­ Han learning how to "play" football, Han getting his groove on ­ don't help matters much. Unlike Li's last film, the hyper-cool Black Mask, Romeo Must Die takes itself far too seriously. True, the fight scenes are splendidly choreographed (with sudden, jarring X-ray shots of damage inflicted to Han's victims), but they're shot in that grating, thoroughly American flashcut style that leaves you wondering just who the hell is hitting who. Li's subdued charisma carries the day in the end, but the film itself is a one-off, hardly the keepsake actioner that the actor's previous, more assured HK work has been.

2 Stars

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