Romeo Must Die


‘…an unlikely Shakespeare/ martial arts hybrid…’

The keen reader will have noticed that this blog is hardly essential reading for martial-arts fans; while not averse to a good scrap, most films in this genre seem fairly weak in terms of story and character, and strong in shrieks and slaps. Producer Joel Silver is always someone keen to bring the action, and took inspiration from colourful, kinetic Hong Kong cinema for this vehicle for Jet Li, smoking hot from his breakout role in Lethal Weapon 4. But Romeo Must Die caught my eye for a number of reasons; it’s an unlikely Shakespeare/ martial arts hybrid, it’s got a over-qualified cast including The Good Wife’s Delroy Lindo, rapper DMX, and marked the only film release of Aaliyah during her short lifetime. Did I mention it’s a rare film that attempts to present fight scenes in X-ray vision?

That’s right, when Han Sing (Li) fights, we snap into X-ray vision to see bones crack and splinter; it’s surely what Shakespeare would have wanted. His play Romeo and Juliet is cannibalised here with some imagination; you can’t accuse film-makers of being slavish to the nuances of the text. Hoping to attract an NFL franchise to California, gangsters are planning to buy up waterfront property to build a stadium, much as in the original first folio. But Hong Kong copper Han busts his way out of jail and flies back to avenge the death of his brother, putting him in conflict with property developer Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). But is O’Day truly responsible for Han’s woes, or is the true villain lurking in the shadows?

Reading this synopsis, you might feel that Romeo Must Die hasn’t entirely captured the essence of the story of the Montagues and Capulets, but romance appears in the form of O’Day’s daughter Trish (Aaliyah), who also contributes three songs to the soundtrack including hit Try Again. Trish and Han share a rather muted romantic relationship, an intimacy that belies their perilous position on either side of the treacherous feud that’s being fought out.

Andrzej Bartowaik stuck with producer Silver for two more similar romps in this idiom, Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 the Grave, but this is the best of the bunch, largely because of Aaliyah’s fresh presence here at 21 years old; she died in a plane crash before her next film Queen of the Damned could be released. Her presence here pulls Romeo Must Die out of genre cliché and into something more interesting, even if the different elements don’t quite gel. As a showcase of Jet Li kicking people and hitting them with footballs and fire-hoses, this passes muster, even without Aaliyah’s presence. Apart from a couple of terrible fake CGI shots, very 2000, the action is good and there’s a decent car vs motorbike chase to savour for those seeking bang for their buck.


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  1. Oh man, I remember that was rather hard to swallow and I started but stopped watching it just after few scenes – but I did love the Indonesian martial arts movie The Raid 😀

    • Now, The Raid is the kind of film I’d make an exception for, good story, great atmosphere, some amazing action too. This is very silly in comparison…

      • The Raid is a really good movie, indeed! A hidden gem, really, especially considering the majority of Hollywood attempts at a good martial arts movie.

        • Agreed! And there’s some good stuff in The Raid 2 as well, but the first one is a great example of a good fighting flick!

  2. I have Jet Li’s autograph. Even better, he used my toilet!! When they were shooting Unleashed in Glasgow, one of the locations was Peckhams deli in Merchant City. My Cookery School was on the third floor and we apparently had the only customer toilet in the building. So he came up and asked to use it. Being the magnanimous guy that I am I only charged him the price of an autograph.

    • Jet Li used my toilet; now, if you’d dropped that in the group on first meeting, there would have been scenes!

      Do like Unleashed, maybe I like more martial arts films that I thought…love the scene at the Spar in Broomhill ‘the best supermarket in the country’ according to Morgan Freeman in the film. Larger fruit display than normal, but I guess Luc Besson always has to ramp things up…

  3. All I remember from this movie was the X-ray bone breaking (brrrrr) and I “think” this one was the movie where Li dropped down a skyscraper by dropping from balcony to balcony and catching each balcony? If this was that movie, THAT made me roll my eyes.

    I’d only read R&J in highschool at the point when I watched this but I don’t remember this having any tie-in with the bard’s play. Probably just as well 😀

    • There’s a lot of falling out of windows in this film, but no balcony to balcony action; think the balcony scene is from Romeo and Juliet. Would like to see the Muppets do a martial arts take on Shakespeare…

      • Miss Piggy definitely has the chops to do a martial arts action film.
        I”m thinking of something like Kermit the 5th, where instead of just Kermit invading France and giving those *insert your choice of words* whatfor and then marrying the Princess, Miss PIggy has to meet him with a cache of stolen jewels that she took from a secret mountain hideout full of ninjas.

        Ninja Kermit V.

        I like it!

        • It has a real Dickensian feel to it. Would be keen to see Fozzie doing a training montage with throwing stars…

            • That’s one for the sizzle reel. Miss Piggy; Ninja! She’s got one killer karate chop! Hi-ya! This writes itself.

              • We talk about a lot of things that could practically write themselves. I hadn’t thought too much of it, but does that mean that you and I are incredibly lazy since none of these things have ever come into cinematic life?

                • I ordered a blu ray boxed set of muppet movies, I’m planning a major retrospective, granular in scope. We can work out the ideas in more detail, but, my friend, it’s money in the bank.

                  • Was that the 5 or 6 movie set? I’m currently checking out the dvd releases of the tv show, but it appears disney destroyed any hopes of getting the final several seasons released.

                    • These little critters can’t catch a break. No Manhattan or Space in this box. The Ming the Merciless news story today suggests that culture is being put out of reach because it doesn’t align with today’s standards.

                    • Yeah, muppets definitely are children of the 70’s. I’m not a big fan of the attitude of the 70’s, but I’d rather have that than the Disney attitude we get today 🙁

  4. Used to really love martial arts movies, especially Jet Li. Somehow missed this one, but I’d give it a go for old times sakes. An automatic transmission Merc not the car I’d have chosen for a car chase though 🙂 Anyways, a long Yep.

  5. So, no chance of a Sho Kosugi review marathon in the near future? His 1980s Cannon ninja movies made me want to become a professional assassin when I was young.

  6. Is Hong Kong action over now? I guess given the status of Hong Kong it might be. I guess it’s had a lot of influence though, as it’s taken for granted that Statham and Reeves et al are all martial artists of the first rank.

    • I guess that influence is there, but I always feel the silliness of the stunts rubs against the po faced stories…

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