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.