Romeo Must Die

Jet Li rocks! Now, American audiences will finally see what worldwide audiences knew for years. This is Li's first American leading role (after a supporting role in Lethal Weapon 4 and the American dubbed release of Black Mask), and should hopefully place him squarely among the tier of top action stars. Li, one of the premier action stars in Asia, has a commanding presence, and in Romeo Must Die, suffers from the same drawbacks of his other movies, a story that needs some work. Romeo Must Die is another retelling of the classic Shakespeare story, this time replacing the Montagues and Capulets with Chinese and African-American crime families in Oakland. The murder of Chinese crime boss Ch'u Sing's (Henry O, Brokedown Palace, Snow Falling on Cedars) son further strains the tenuous truce between the two families.

Han (Li) hears about his brother's death while in a Hong Kong prison. Han, the only non-criminal member of the family, breaks out of prison and travels to America to find his brother's killer. His investigation leads him to Trish O'Day (R&B singer Aaliyah in her film debut), the daughter of Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo, The Cider House Rules, Gone in 60 Seconds), Ch'u's archrival. Trish estranged herself from her father, who, unknown to her, is trying to detach himself from all illegal operations and become legitimate. Han and Trish's attraction to each other is immediate, much to the dismay of both their families. The story downplays much of the forced romance, which is fine, because Aaliyah's acting is uneven at best. The story instead leans toward shady dealings by both families to secure an interest in a new NFL expansion franchise in Oakland.

When comparing Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards), Eric Bernt (Virtuosity), and John Jarrell's (Outlaw) story to Asian action films, the quality is about the same. However, American audiences will probably want more. The story threads tie together artificially and somewhat uncredibly. The movie only partially reveals much of the backstory, leaving small holes in much of the remainder. Ch'u and O'Day's assistants, Kai Sing (Russell Wong, China Cry, Vanishing Son) and Mac (Isaiah Washington, True Crime, Bulworth) outshine their bosses in charisma. Lindo is a strong presence in any film, and does little here except look menacing with occasional turns of emotion. Wong and Washington give much more dynamic performances, adding a sense of danger with their characters.

But who cares about all this? After all, Jet Li is the star. First time director Andzej Bartkowiak steps back and lets Li take control. Li's English still needs improvement (hey, it's pretty good for only a couple year's worth of experience), but words are not necessary when his fists and legs are flying through the air. Li's manages to carry the film with his presence. He rises above the so-so material with his laid-back style of acting and his lightning quick martial arts. Wong and Francoise Yip (Rumble in the Bronx, Black Mask) also bring a certain grace and poise to much of the violent proceedings. If nothing else, watch Romeo Must Die and sit back in awe as people fly across the screen as if they are in a Street Fighter game.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 55 minutes, Rated R for violence, some language, and brief nudity.

Back to Movies