In the little history of modern action cinema that I wrote a couple of years ago, I predicted that the future of Hollywood action flicks lied in Hong Kong. Indeed, a lot of the big Asian names are bringing their skills to America, from directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark to stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat. This marriage of all-out Hong Kong action wildness and Hollywood-size budgets and special effects can lead to greatness when done properly, anybody who’s seen “The Matrix” knows that. But unfortunately, many films are less successful. The problem with a movie like “Romeo Must Die” is that the people behind it don’t seem to understand what they’ve got. They cast Jet Li, arguably the most electrifying martial arts expert in the world, but only to bury him in an alternately tedious and epileptic B-movie.
Basically, we’ve got yet another Romeo & Juliet throwback, set in Oakland, USA. Rich white investors want to build a stadium for a new NFL franchise, but first they need to buy out all the small proprietors of the area. To convince them to sell or else, the business men use the services of both a Black gang and the Chinese mob, and of course that spells trouble. Jet Li stars as Han, a young man who escapes a Hong Kong prison and comes to America only to find his brother dead, apparently to the hands of Black thugs. Han doesn’t care about the gang war, he just sorta kinda stumbles into it as he tries to avenge his sibling. He’s helped by a fly black chick (R&B soul sister Aaliyah), who also feels uninvolved in her family’s dirty business. And so blooms romance between these two star-crossed lovers… only not. They don’t even kiss. It’s more of a nice friendship through a lot of mayhem.
There are two major problems with the picture. First, way too much time is spent exposing the boring, conventional plot, with all its predictable twists and double-crossings. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak does try to spend time with the characters, but he fails to make it much interesting and it just makes for plenty of slow, fat dialogue scenes. Delroy Lindo is pretty good as the Black boss, but the rest of the cast isn’t great; Aaliyah should stick to singing, she doesn’t have much screen presence. As for Jet Li, he’s cool and charming, but he’s not given much to do outside the action scenes which, surprisingly, are the movie’s other problem.
Bartkowiak suffers from the Michael Bay syndrome, apparently, and he feels the need to craft the action scenes like music videos,with blink and you missed a shot editing and whooping hip hop over the soundtrack. That’s plain stupid : Jet Li is already so exciting with his gravity-defying spins and kicks that you just have to set up continuous shots and let the man do his thing. Constantly cutting back and forth is just distractive and frustrating. We still get to see Jet Li kick some ass in style, but if you’ve seen some of his ‘real’ movies, this is a letdown. It’s like comparing the fights in Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master 2” to those in “Rush Hour”. Some people seemed impressed by the use of X-ray shots, but that trick is lifted right out of the Sonny Chiba 70s classic “The Streetfighter”, so it’s old news to connaisseurs. Overall, “Romeo Must Die” is modestly entertaining (a Jet Li flick can’t be all bad), but it remains so-so at best. Wait for the video.