By Justin Lee
Black urban America has embraced the kung-fu film genre since the days of Saturday morning kung fu shows and "blaxploitation" flicks of the ’70s. These movies took the genre and gave it an urban twist (i.e. Dolemite and Black Belt Jones), and now Hollywood is flirting with the whole East-meets-West premise.
Enter Romeo Must Die, the latest attempt by Hollywood to fuse hip-hop/urban culture with the intense action scenes of kung-fu flicks, playing off the similarities and differences between Asians and Blacks.
Set in the backdrop of Oakland, California (read: filmed in Vancouver), the film is loosely-based around Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with Hong Kong superstar, Jet Li (Han) and r&b goddess, Aaliyah (Trish), as their respective counterparts. After Han’s brother is brutally murdered, he escapes from a Hong Kong jail with the speed and finesse of a b-boy, and flees immediately to the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, the tension between a Chinese gang led by Han’s father (Tony Lung) and an African-American gang headed by Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo), is quickly rising. In a weird twist of fate, Han runs into Trish (Aaliyah), O’ Day’s daughter. As the film progresses, the two are torn between their own romantic affections for one another and their loyalties to their families.
Aesthetically, Romeo Must Die is chalk-full of eye-candy. The fight scenes are superbly-cheoreographed and will make you wish for a slow motion replay just so you can catch everything. First-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak–whose previous cinematography work includes such visually-stunning films as Speed and Species–makes full use of close-ups and rapid cuts during fight scenes, as well as some very innovative special effects. In one scene, for example, the camera cuts to an X-ray perspective of a man’s arm being broken in several different places.
One thing blatantly obvious before seeing the film is that it does not rely heavily on acting ability. No one who sees an action film, especially a kung-fu flick, expects any Oscar-worthy performances. Li is far from the level Pacino and DeNiro or even Van Damme, delivering his lines in broken English. However, he serves his purpose as the film’s super-action hero and is truly fascinating to watch.
Aaliyah, however, makes an impressive acting debut as Li’s love interest, despite the fact that the two share as much on-screen chemistry as the couple from, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire.
Lindo and Isaiah Washington, who also appeared together in Spike Lee’s 1995 film Clockers, also put together worthy performances as the head of an African-American gang and his right-hand man, respectively.
Finally, Russell Wong, who plays Kai, is completely unconvincing as the Chinese kingpin’s head henchman, let alone as a human being. He delivers his lines in near-monotone, leading one to believe his acting coach was none other than Keanu Reeves.
The film’s major flaw, however, is the weak and, at times, over-complex script that leaves some scratching their heads in confusion even at the film’s conclusion. The characters fall short of being anything more than one-dimensional stereotypes (i.e. the "nice guy" who will do anything to avenge his brother’s death to the "gangster" who wants nothing more than to provide for his family).
But in the end, Romeo Must Die sets out to do exactly what its producers intended: it entertains audiences with its dazzling array of choreographed fight scenes and car chases, while, managing to pimp a few laughs out of you.