Following in the footsteps of fellow Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat (The Replacement Killers) is Jet Li, who makes the absurdly complex and dull Romeo Must Die his U.S. debut. The film was helmed by first-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who would later go to do the violent and clich’-ridden Exit Wounds starring many of the black actors who first appeared in this flick.
Romeo Must Die stars Jet Li as Han, an ex-Hong Kong cop who went to prison for protecting his gangster father, who has since fled to the States with Han’s brother Po (Jonkit Lee). In the States, the Sings are at war with a rival black gang led by Isaak O’Day (the very un-Irish Delroy Lindo). Both sides are battling for the right to be the lapdogs of a Caucasian businessman who wants to build a new football stadium for an expansion NFL team, but needs hired muscles (re: the O’Days or the Sings) to push out the rightful owners of the businesses presently in the locales that he desires for said stadium.
During a night of back and forth between members of the two gangs, Po is found strung up on a lamppost, murdered. The O’Days are blamed, although they claim they didn’t do it. Word gets back to the incarcerated Han about Po, spurring the protective brother to promptly break out of prison, fly to the States, and begin his own investigation. In the process, he falls for Trish O’Day (Aaliyah), Isaak’s daughter, and that’s when things start to get complicated.
Romeo Must Die is obviously a modern-day retelling of William Shakes’ “Romeo and Juliet,” but with a hip-hop soundtrack and computer-assisted kung fu. There are a couple of obvious problems with Romeo Must Die, one of which is the supposed “love affair” between Han and Trish, which is not very convincing. Whenever Han and Trish interact, I immediately noticed that Jet Li has about 15 or so years over the still-in-her-teens Aaliyah, and that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and take notice. Mind you, Li is very charismatic as usual, and sold his role as the Chinaman in the States with a vengeance very well, but the movie bogs down when the writing requires Han and Aaliyah to come together.
The chemistry is just not there, and the fact that the filmmakers kept trying to push the pair on us gets a little old (and silly) after a while. To top it off, while the film insinuates a potential “love affair” between the two, Trish and Han’s most intimate contact is a shared hug whenever someone dies in front of them. Those types of contact are more reminiscent of a brother and sister than potential lovers. What I’m trying to say is, the film would have been best served if they had gotten rid of the love angle completely.
Jet Li movies are known for action. Yes, Jet’s Han does kick some booty and doesn’t bother to take names, but compared to many of Jet’s other movies, Romeo Must Die is disappointingly lacking in what can be called “balls out action.” It doesn’t help that the filmmakers insisted on using obvious-cgi effects for much of Li’s action scenes, leading to the revelation that cgi action is not for every film.
Andrzej Bartkowiak gives Romeo Must Die a very nice polished look and feel, but shows his lack of storytelling ability when it comes to the movie’s pacing. The movie is dreadfully dull when Li’s Han goes about his investigations into his brother’s death, and there is a middle section that just seems to go on forever. The film could have been trimmed for brevity by deleting much of the movie’s middle. As it stands, the film is sometimes too slow, and there are long periods of constant exposition and backstabbing that adds very little to the movie. For whatever reason, the filmmakers mistook Romeo Must Die’s potential audience (the urban black audience, suburban wiggers, and Jet Li fans) as desiring a “deep philosophical” film about loyalty and family. They were wrong.
The one notable is Russell Wong (TV’s “Vanishing Son”), who plays Kai, the right-hand man and enforcer for the Sing gang. Kai is cool throughout the film, and proves to be a skilled martial artist when the chips are down. Wong brings a lot of flash and his scenes are breaths of fresh air when the movie begins to drown in its own overwrought themes of family, loyalty, and other uninteresting back and forth dialogue.
Another notable is Edoardo Ballerini as the scheming “evil white man” Vincent Roth, who is laughably much too young for the role, and proves to be a poor excuse for a “master bad guy.” Ballerini’s character, in his attempt to be menacing, is a good reason to snicker. Couldn’t the filmmakers find an actor who was over 30 years of age to play this role?
Romeo Must Die is Jet’s first film in the States, and it’s probably his worst. It’s dull, too long, and its action (a Jet Li trademark) is sorely out of place. Luckily Li has gone on to do better films such as The One — which despite being short on plot and heavy on effects was still more entertaining — and Kiss of the Dragon, a film that relied on gritty, down-to-Earth action, and is easily Li’s best international effort so far.
Andrzej Bartkowiak (director) / Mitchell Kapner, Eric Bernt, John Jarrell (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li …. Han Sing
Aaliyah …. Trish O’Day
Isaiah Washington …. Mac
Russell Wong …. Kai
DMX …. Silk
Delroy Lindo …. Isaak O’Day