Romeo Must Die

Jet Li is a former National Wushu champion in his native China who first appeared on US audiences’ radar screens in a major way via some pyrotechnic fights that provided the only interesting parts of 1998’s lethargic Lethal Weapon 4. He’s been making overwhelmingly popular martial arts films overseas for more than fifteen years. Romeo Must Die is obviously intended as Li’s entree to American action film stardom, but it fails miserably in just about every way imaginable. Granted, most films of this genre are not usually classic Merchant-Ivory dramas, but even by comic-book standards this is a feeble effort.

In a threadbare plotline very loosely related to Shakespeare’s tale of the Capulets and Montagues, Chinese and African-American crime families are at odds – each is trying to line up the land acquisitions for a shady developer bidding to build a new stadium for an NFL expansion team in Oakland. Han Sing (Li) is in a Hong Kong hellhole of a prison – he’s the older son of the Asian family patriarch and a former cop who took the rap for some mysterious and unspecified illegal activities in which his father was involved. Han escapes and rejoins his father in America, only to find his younger brother dead from a violent gang murder. Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo – Get Shorty, The Cider House Rules) heads up the other family. He’s counting on the NFL deal to be his last shady score before going totally legitimate and wants his daughter Trish (recording artist and Tommy Hilfinger model Aaliyah, in her first film role) kept out of harm’s way. Revenge, roughhousing, and romance ensue – all of a decidedly lightweight sort.

Several co-conspirators are responsible for this dreadful effort. The story is by Mitchell Kapner, who earlier this year wrote The Whole Nine Yards. As a cinematographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak has done admirable work in the past (The Verdict, Prizzi’s Honor, Falling Down). This is his first directing effort, and it’s an unremarkable one. The film’s most interesting sequence is the opening titles, and it spirals downhill from there – an unsatisfying mix of a predictable story line, stereotyped characters, emotionally barren dialog and wooden performances. The film has a cheap look to it, with Vancouver serving as a bargain basement substitute for the San Francisco Bay area. Bartkowiak’s one stylistic innovation of note – showing a victim’s internal injuries as if on an x-ray – is interesting on first viewing but becomes tiresome when reprised once too often.

What should be the film’s greatest strength – its martial arts scenes – are a glaring weakness. They’re surprisingly dull. Most are framed too tightly to clearly see what’s happening, and the blatant use of supporting wires and CGI effects is both obvious and annoying. One setup in particular is intended to really impress – Li is suspended upside-down by a handcuff on one ankle and still manages to fight off five assailants – but the delivery is a letdown. The rest of the film is even more lifeless – Ken Burns documentaries are more animated.

It’s hard to say how skilled an actor Li may be based on what can be seen here – none of his dialog is more than a single line and he’s never asked to convey much in the way of emotion. But unlike Jackie Chan, who at least brings a large measure of joy and humor to even his weakest films, Li never seems to be enjoying himself very much. Even during his fight scenes he’s oddly grim. To see Jet Li at his best, rent one of his earlier features, like Fist of Legend, Kung Fu Cult Master, or Once Upon a Time in China. Whoever designed Romeo Must Die as Li’s springboard to wider film fame needs to head back to the drawing board and retool.

– Bob Aulert