Is America ready for the Hong Kong action style? Certainly there are many fans of the more balletic, guns-and-martial-arts, fly-through-the-air movies that have inspired everyone from Quentin Tarantino to the Wachowski brothers. Yet Hollywood still seems to have had trouble marketing the concept. Yes, John Woo gets high-profile projects, but the only time he actually got to work with a legitimate martial artist (if you can call him that) was with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target. And poor Chow Yun-Fat has been stuck in lukewarm buddy pics with Mira Sorvino and Mark Wahlberg. Jackie Chan's Rush Hour did a little better at the box office, but it was primarily a Chris Tucker movie; the Miramax rereleases of Chan's earlier films (which, notably, were shortened and dubbed for us attention-deficit-disordered Americans) have made progressively less and less money, possibly because stateside audiences aren't used to action films that are as comedic, and relatively bloodless, as Chan's.
Things have been looking up recently, however. With the success of The Matrix last year, audiences proved able to accept Hong Kong-style wire work in action scenes, when given a sci-fi explanation for how it could plausibly happen. And in Lethal Weapon 4, Joel Silver (also producer of The Matrix) brought in Hong Kong star Jet Li to fill the relatively thankless role of the guy who had to play villain opposite Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, and Chris Rock. Equipped with limited English skills, Li not only gave his character a silent grace (not that he could have been heard under the din of Rock and Pesci), but also administered a serious ass-whipping to Mel Gibson. Unlike the quirkier Chan, this was a guy whom Americans could figure out with ease. And unlike many of our own action stars, he was physically expressive to boot.
Now, finally, the studios have done it right. Romeo Must Die may not have the best script in the world, but it brings Jet Li to the big screen in a way that all action junkies, not just the video-store geeks, will appreciate. There are wire stunts aplenty here, in utter defiance of the laws of physics -- Li and costar Russell Wong leap into the air and then twist from side to side to take out foes all around them -- but at this point we've been conditioned by The Matrix and numerous fantasy martial-arts video games to accept it. And in the "how can we top The Matrix" sweepstakes, there's one ultracool effect guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet: At key moments during certain fights, the image suddenly switches to X-ray, and we get to see the bone break, or the heart get impaled, or what have you, from inside the body at the moment of impact. Of course, such thrills are not for the squeamish, but the squeamish probably don't belong in an action-movie audience to begin with. Not surprisingly, this is once again brought to you by Joel Silver, whose recent efforts have all put the similarly maniacal Jerry Bruckheimer to shame.
Romeo Must Die
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak
Screenplay by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell
Starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Russell Wong, Isaiah Washington, DMX, and Anthony Anderson
The story is archetypal Hong Kong and bears resemblance to Rush Hour on several points. Two rival gangs, one Chinese and one African-American, are engaged in a truce as they try to make a deal that will sell all their valuable waterfront territories to a major developer, giving both gangs enough of a paycheck to go legit once the negotiations are through. Naturally, it's not going to be that simple: Unknown forces within the gangs are conspiring to break the truce, notably by lynching the spoiled son of the top Chinese ganglord (Henry O). When news of the son's death reaches Hong Kong, the trouble really begins. See, the Chinese ganglord has another son. And guess who it happens to be?
The moment of revelation is priceless. First we see Hong Kong, then the prison, then a long row of prisoners in gray uniforms, seated in a cafeteria. Pan over to one prisoner in particular: Jet Li, who immediately stands up, eyes brimming with sorrow, as he reads the news. As the guards come to force him to sit down, he clobbers them with his steel dinner plate, only to get beaten down like Rodney King. Already we have learned from this scene that Jet Li can convey more in his eyes, without speaking, than most American action heroes can using their entire bodies and that unlike, say, Steven Seagal, Li is willing to get his ass kicked onscreen.
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Before long, Li is hanging upside down in handcuffs, surrounded by about six of the guards who beat him up. Needless to say, this is not a fair fight. Six dead guards later, Li has unlocked the cell door with his mouth and escaped to the U.S., where, through one of those movie coincidences, he crosses paths with Trish O'Day (R&B star Aaliyah), the rebellious daughter of his father's arch rival Isaak (the always reliable Delroy Lindo). Trish initially mistakes him for a cab driver (since all foreigners in movies are cab drivers, get it?), and enlists his aid in escaping from her gang-assigned bodyguard, Maurice (a hilarious Anthony Anderson, of TV's Hang Time), whom she dubs "Moron." Although their chance meeting is amicable, it doesn't seem that they'll have any reason to see each other again, at least until Li discovers that his brother's last phone call on earth was made to the store where she works. Trish, who is apparently the only one with any morals in her entire family, has been trying to stay out of the family business, but sure enough, as the plot escalates, her brother is treated to a fate similar to the one doled out to Li's. And, as Li says in the key scene used in the movie's trailer, "That...was a mistake."
Li, who apparently wasn't able to speak English very well when he did Lethal Weapon 4, has since picked it up quickly. Judging by his delivery here, he'd make a more convincing American than a certain Austrian muscleman or Belgian kickboxer. And his strengths are played to a little by having him perform a number of key emotional scenes with the Chinese in his native tongue, subtitled. Not that the dialogue actually, you know, matters, but it helps him get to a level of emotional truth that the mere act of breaking stuff alone wouldn't achieve. And speaking of breaking stuff: When will gangsters ever learn not to rely so heavily on glass furniture? Or those large windowpanes that just happen to be stored among the crates in that big warehouse on the waterfront?
As the costar, Aaliyah makes a capable acting debut, although she has about one too many scenes that seem calculated to prove that she can cry on cue. Ability appreciated, but we don't need it here. Less crying, less talking, more kicking, if you please. With Li's help, she actually proves fairly adept at that last one in a scene in which they must fight a female assassin and Li tells her that he can't hit a woman. The solution? Manipulate Aaliyah like a kung-fu puppet, in an elaborate dance that naturally ends in disaster for the assailant. Those expecting much of a romance (i.e., the date that you drag to this film) may be disappointed: In spite of the title, which seemingly references Romeo and Juliet (since none of the characters herein is named or even nicknamed "Romeo"), this is Hollywood, and we still don't do interracial kisses unless it's an art-house flick. And it's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that neither principal commits suicide in the end.
Veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (The Verdict, Speed) makes an impressive feature directing debut, although producer Silver was undoubtedly in control the entire time. The one misstep, however, is the excessive number of quick cuts during many of the martial arts scenes. Li is fast enough that it becomes difficult to follow the action if the camera and editing are being maneuvered with equal speed. Thankfully, the final battle is more simply shot, even featuring occasional use of slo-mo, which is an asset rather than a cliché when dealing with a high-speed hero like the aptly named Jet Li. Will this movie make him a Hollywood star? It's hard to say. But as a solo showcase and a better-than-average actioner, it stands a better chance than either Rush Hour or The Corruptor did for their respective Eastern leads.