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ROMEO MUST DIE

SYNOPSIS:
This thinly threaded Shakespearean transition replaces fair Verona with present day Oakland, feuding Montagues and Capulets with warring Afro-Americans and Asians, and artful swordsmanship with Matrix-like martial arts. Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo) is a proud American gangster and family man. Ch’u Sing (Henry O) is a traditional Asian warlord with a personal vendetta. Both crime czars sport an unstable right-hand-man (respectively played by Isaiah Washington and Russell Wong) who themselves hold their own secret agenda. All that remains is two star-cross’d lovers (enter stage left), Sing’s son Han (Jet Li), a pint-sized ex-cop, ex-con with lightning quick reflexes, and Isaak’s disinterested daughter Trish (Aaliyah), who wants nothing to do with her father’s business. Two families locked in a bitter war to control a prime piece of California waterfront. Guns. Explosions. Fast cars. Prison breaks. Clever one-liners. High wire fight scenes. Kung-fu chicks on motor bikes.

"While it may not totally achieve what it aspires to, Romeo Must Die is a stylish and entertaining martial arts action thriller with a punchy soundtrack and spectacular effects. From lavish locations to a stark Hong Kong prison, this Hong-Kong style is visually sharp and there's a certain mood throughout. There are impressive car chases, high leaps from skyscrapers and kung fu gymnastics that make your head spin. In fact it's pretty over the top, allowing the violence to sit with tenacity in the 'cartoon' category. The stunts are wild - wait until you see how our hero, suspended upside down by one leg in a grimy prison scene, not only clobbers all the guards, but manages to get the key to his cell and make a stunning escape. The characters are just that - terrific characters, and Asian martial arts star Jet Li is both charismatic and extraordinary to watch in action. Pop singer Aaliyah makes a great feature film debut and four of her songs are included in the soundtrack. At the ripe ol' age of 20, Aaliyah (playing the title role in Aussie Michael Rymer's vampire movie, Queen of the Dammed) has been recording since she was 14 years old, and her transition to the big screen seems to be a natural one. The entire cast is excellent - from Delroy Lindo to Isaiah Washington as well as rap artist DMX, whose duet with Aaliyah is also included. While the basic two families at war concept is at the heart of the plot and the lovers are from opposing sides, there's nothing much else to link the film to Shakespeare's tragedy. There are a lot of cool dudes and some cute touches, keeping us connected for the ride. Unabashed escapism entertainment, Romeo Must Die works well on video, enticing us into an exotic stunt-driven spectacle from the confines of our lounge room."
Louise Keller

"Given all the possibilities, it’s funny that Hollywood's latest attempt to import Hong Kong’s finest evolves into this bizarre blend of Shaft style ghetto hip-hop meets Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan martial arts. A strange mix indeed, but it works - barely. The Matrix producer Joel Silver incorporates slices of those cutting-edge high-wire stunts for (pardon the pun) punchy action sequences here, providing the most dynamic and fun scenes in the film. Well he might, for didn’t everyone giggle at Keanu’s kung fu stances and hand movements in The Matrix? Silver seems to be laughing with them (now…) as he repeats the scenes to comic effect here. Physics just doesn’t allow some of the stunts here. Still, it’s funny to see guys with afros strike the kung fu pose. Then there’s Hong Kong superstar Jet Li in his first English-language lead role. He gets to showcase the full range of his considerable talents here, sporting a boyish grin one second and delivering bone-crushing kicks the next. The scene where he fights off five soldiers whilst dangling upside-down by a rope is extremely slick. Li makes Jackie Chan look old and slow. More amazing is when Li uses Trish as a punching, kicking mannequin to whup a female aggressor because he "can’t hit a girl." These and other sequences work thanks mostly to Li’s talents and the fluid direction of first-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak (best known as Sydney Lumet’s long-time cinematographer). Bartkowiak distinguished career as a cinematographer lends a great visual style that’s perfect for this genre. He’s a perfect candidate to helm the next Bond film. It’s a shame the script doesn’t keep up, as it preaches the wrongs of urban-violence (mostly through a Janet Jackson-ish Aaliyah), and delivers overwrought ghetto slang. A cracking script from Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and Eric Bernt (Virtuosity) could have made Romeo Must Die much more than it is; an amusing 70s B-grade bad-guy action flick with 90s special effects. Someone should have called Dirty Harry."
Shannon J. Harvey

"Jet Li, like Jackie Chan, started out in Hong Kong action flicks and has broken through to star in an American film. In Romeo Must Die he gets ample opportunity to show his spectacular martial arts skills. Unfortunately, the story framing the kung-fu is largely forgotten. As the title suggests, the film is loosely based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet - but don't come expecting the Bard (or even Baz) in this movie. The script pulls out just about every cliche in the book as it roams over very familiar territory. The outcome is never in doubt (although it's not the same as R&J) but Li kicks a lot of butt and breaks a lot of glass getting there. I found the film rather dubious in its approach to race. The criminals are Asians or African-Americans; the whites, while not exactly moral role-models, are apparently above messy killing and such. To me, this is close to, if it's not outright, racism. One nice touch is the use of x-ray like images to convey serious bodily injury. It sounds tasteless but it's nonetheless effective. Not so effective was the locations crew, who would have us believe downtown Oakland and San Francisco look exactly like Vancouver. Li obviously studied acting at the Jackie Chan Thespians' Academy; although he doesn't try so self-consciously for comedy as Jackie. Delroy Lindo is an interesting counterpoint as Isaak but his ability deserves better material than he gets here. Aaliyah is also effective as his daughter and she gets most of what little character development there is. As an all-kicking, all-punching slugfest Romeo Must Die is almost in the "so bad it's good" category. As anything else, it misses the mark."
David Edwards

"Having hijacked the industry's biggest stars and directors, Hollywood continues to try and beat Hong Kong cinema at its own game. Somehow, it never quite works out: the results are almost always a bit haphazard and self-defeating. Romeo Must Die's fight sequences are fine in their way, but the slick high-speed editing only shows us the action in fractured glimpses, and often there's no way of knowing whether we're watching Jet Li or a stuntman. With another star we mightn't care, but here it's unfortunate, given the intended contrast between Li's unassuming presence and his incredible skill. What Romeo Must Die trades off is less its star's actual talent than his mystique, part of the general tide of hype that sweeps the film along. It's like an ad executive's vision of 'cinema for the 21st century' - more kinetic, earsplitting, and replete with funky culture-clashes than ever before. There's something undeniably thrilling about such a project, though the combination of martial arts and hip-hop mightn't seem so wildly novel to Australia's many Asian homeboys (who made up much of the audience in the screening I attended). Romeo Must Die doesn't really have the vision or daring to be the next state-of-the-art blockbuster (that crown still belongs to The Matrix). Yet there is a genuine unfamiliarity - almost a science fiction vibe - in the air, if only because this is a mainstream , big-budget Hollywood production featuring almost exclusively black and Asian actors. In the world of action cinema, the centre of gravity does appear to be slowly shifting. Yet the filmmakers are still too timid to show an actual interracial romance. Unbelievably, the two stars never even kiss - which in itself helps illustrate why Romeo Must Die isn't quite the film it wants to be."
Jake Wilson

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 2
Mixed: 1

ROMEO MUST DIE (M)
(US)

CAST: Jet Li, Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, Russel Wong, DMX, Delroy Lindo

DIRECTOR: Andrzej Bartkowiak

PRODUCER: Joel Silver, Jim van Wyck

SCRIPT: Eric Bernt, John Jarrell

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Glen Macpherson

EDITOR: Derek G. Brechin

MUSIC: Stanley Clarke, Timbaland

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Michael Bolton

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 11, 2000

VIDEO RELEASE: October 3, 2000

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video







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