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Romeo Must Die   C-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Writers: Mitchell Kapner, Eric Bernt, John Jarrell
Cast: Jet Li, Aaliyah, DMX, Isaiah Washington, Russell Wong, Delroy Lindo.

Review by Rob Vaux

After stealing the show in the otherwise dreadful Lethal Weapon 4, martial arts star Jet Li has waited patiently for a good English-language vehicle. Unfortunately, he hasn't found one yet. While boasting a strong cast and some impressive fight scenes, Romeo Must Die tries to do too much and ends up doing nothing of any real merit.

The setting is the Oakland waterfront, where two criminal organizations -- the African-American O'Day family and the Hong Kong émigré Ch'us -- are battling for control. The NFL is interested in building a stadium in the area, meaning the rivals stand to become fantastically rich...if they can maintain a truce long enough to close the deal. Things seem fine until the Ch'us youngest son is killed following an altercation at an all-black nightclub. The incident threatens to explode into a full-out war.

Enter the elder Ch'u son, Han (Li), recently escaped from prison and looking to avenge his brother's death. Han was a cop who took the fall for his family, and has no interest in their brewing gang war. Unfortunately, he soon runs into the beautiful Trish O'Day (Aaliyah), and before you can say "West Side Story," the two have fallen in love. Needless to say, the two sides are less than thrilled with the relationship, and the escalating tensions quickly rise to a boiling point.

Unfortunately, said boiling point never quite arrives, which is one of the principle difficulties the film. There's a lot of storyline to absorb here -- with scheming underlings, brokered deals and subtle betrayals on top of the Shakespearean star-crossed lovers -- which normally wouldn't be a problem. But while director Andrzej Bartkowiak devotes a lot of time to the plot, he never really does anything with it. It sort of staggers along, taking up copious amounts of screen time without developing into anything. The talented cast tries their best to work with the material, but their characters remain stuck in neutral along with the story. Try as they might, they just can't raise this material above its half-formed origins.

I know what you're thinking: this is not a movie to worry about plot and character. The ostensible point is to watch Li drop the pain hammer on as many people as possible. If only the filmmakers thought the same way. All too often Romeo Must Die holds up the action in favor of overly complicated romantic liaisons, tensionless business meetings, and scenes that repeat the same basic information over and over again.

Luckily, the kung fu sequences are almost worth it -- kinetic and engaging, with several nifty visual tricks (such as superimposed special effects that let us see the bones breaking) that lend a distinctive style to the proceedings. Li's physical skills are tremendous, and he gets a lot of help from some innovative choreography. There's a lot of inspiration from Jackie Chan's films in here, as Li uses a variety of props (including his leading lady at one point) to put the harm on his opponents. But the Chan movies are smart enough to know where their strength lies, and never let the plot get in the way of their hero's antics. Here, the story threatens to smother all that kick-ass fun. As good as they are, the fights never last long enough to make us forget the tedious plodding in between.

Romeo Must Die isn't a truly bad film, but the impressive kung-fu and talented cast aren't enough to make up for the long stretches of dull. A little more action and a little less talk would have taken things much further. Jet Li has what it takes to be a big star in America. With luck, Romeo Must Die won't be anymore than a minor footnote in his career.

Review published 03.31.2000.

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