The big challenge faced by hot Hong Kong talent looking to make the
transition to mainstream American stardom is to expand their audience
without watering down the special qualities that earned them cult U.S.
followings to begin with. More often than not, it's a losing
battle--witness director John Woo's lacking initial stateside efforts,
_Tomorrow_Never_Dies_' fleeting taste of Michelle Yeoh's considerable
capabilities, and the disappointing Jackie Chan lite on display in
_Rush_Hour_. Against all odds and expectations, however, martial artist
extraordinaire Jet Li has managed to buck that dismaying trend, first
with his movie-stealing villain turn in _Lethal_Weapon_4_ and now his
first U.S. starring vehicle, the satisfying actioner _Romeo_Must_Die_.
As is so often the case with films such as these, the story of
_Romeo_Must_Die_ cannot be called satisfying in itself. The main concern
of the plot is a routine bit of business involving a pair of rival crime
syndicates--one Asian, the other African-American--engaged in a violent
war over the control of waterfront property in Oakland. The first
casualty is the Asian crimelord Ch'u Sing's (Henry O) son, younger
brother of Hong Kong convict Han (Li), who breaks out of prison and
travels to Oakland to, per usual, settle the score. Such a familiar
story would not be complete without Han taking a liking to someone with
rival gang ties--namely, Trish (Aaliyah), headstrong daughter of the
African-American gang's boss, Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo).
While the script by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell doesn't break any new
ground--its twists won't surprise anyone--it does provide a sturdy enough
foundation for what everyone pays admission to see: fight scenes. And
these scenes deliver; first-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak (who had
previously made his name as a cinematographer) just about steps out of
the way and lets Li and fight choreographer Corey Yuen do their thing.
Fans of Li's famous high-flying wire stunts will get their fix, but that
effect is wisely used in moderation, generally to punctuate some of Li's
already-impressive maneuvers. Bartkowiak isn't completely hands-off,
though, and he puts an innovative x-ray visual effect--with which one can
literal see victims' bones crack--to good, measured use. Some fight
scenes obviously exist just for the sole purpose of having them, serving
no real necessity to the story, but when they are as polished and
exciting as they are here, it's petty to complain.
Li was undoubtedly cast for his athletic prowess, but he also fares
pretty well in the other scenes, coasting on an easygoing charisma when
his English skills falter. He shares a gentle rapport with R&B chanteuse
Aaliyah, who is the real revelation of the film. For a screen neophyte,
she delivers a relaxed and impressively natural performance, even pulling
off some challenging emotional scenes. The veteran of the cast, Lindo is
a welcome presence, adding some needed gravity to the proceedings; and
it's a pleasure to see Russell Wong, who had previously proven his
fighting chops in the short-lived television series _Vanishing_Son_, back
in action as Ch'u Sing's head enforcer.
The title _Romeo_Must_Die_ is a vague allusion to the even vaguer
allusions to Shakespeare's _Romeo_and_Juliet_ in the film. Thankfully,
that's as pretentious as the film gets. All _Romeo_Must_Die_ claims and
wants to be is one brisk jolt of action, and that's exactly what it is.