Romeo Must Die

Where’s Jackie Chan when you need him? Of late, I’ve been getting sort of tired of the guy; his relentless impishness began to get on my nerves with his last two films. Romeo Must Die, starring Jet Li, the other Hong Kong martial arts superstar, made me realize how much I miss him. Chan has personality, spontaneity, exuberance — all things missing from this latest pseudo-Shakesperian effort. Li may be the martial arts champion of the world but he has no screen presence whatsoever.

The film, directed by first-timer Andrzej Bartkowiak, claims to be an update of “Romeo & Juliet,” but in reality it’s more of an update of West Side Story (which, of course, was an update of “Romeo & Juliet”). Its plot involves a war between two inner-city gangs; one Asian and one African-American. Of course, all of the Asians know Kung Fu and all of the Blacks have formidable firepower. One day, the leader of the Asian gang’s son is found murdered, hanging from a pole in the middle of the street.

The victim’s brother (Li) is currently in a Hong Kong prison. Once he gets wind of his relative’s demise he beats up the amazingly stupid guards, escapes and comes to America for revenge. While searching for his brother’s killer, he meets Trisha (R & B singer Aaliyah) and falls in love with her. Trisha likes him but of course, she is the daughter of the rival gang leader Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). Needless to say, this presents problems, though not quite of the magnitude that the “real” Romeo & Juliet had.

While this is going on, Isaak’s gang is having some problems of its own. It seems the second-in-command (Isaiah Washington) is planning some sort of mutiny. And the Asian gang is apparently taking revenge for the murder of one of their own by tossing a couple people out of a skyscraper window. Not the best time for a controversial love affair — is it ever?

The advertisements for Romeo Must Die pass it off as a spectacular martial extravaganza. I was looking forward to seeing it for that reason. I was disappointed. There are a few scenes where Jet Li gets to show off exactly why he became Wu Shu champion but they’re few and far between and not particularly well-handled at that. The rest of the running time is filled up with pointless, convoluted inside gang dealings. Since the love story and fight scenes have to fit in there too, the gang story is neither here nor there. There’s not enough of it to be comprehensive and interesting but there is enough to be annoying and distracting.

When the fight scenes do come up, they turn out to be unspectacular for a couple of reasons. First, they are edited to a bloody pulp. We see a kick here, a punch there, but rarely a wide view. We’re not permitted to be awed. Likewise, some of Jet Li’s tricks are so obviously done with computer effects, they’re not really that impressive — at least Jackie Chan does all his own stunts.

Of course, Romeo Must Die is only the title. Romeo can’t die. Hollywood doesn’t have the guts to let him. The film might have actually improved had it stayed truer to Shakespeare’s timeless tale instead of going off on pointless tangents of its own. The way it is, it’s not much of anything: not Shakespeare, not West Side Story, not a love story, not a martial arts movie. It’s not particularly good either.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

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Score: C+

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Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

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Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

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Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

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Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

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Score: C

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Im Sang-Soo, 2013

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