At first viewing, "Romeo Must Die," with its curious mix of patented Jet Li martial arts, Hollywood special effects and especially ineffective plotline and characterization, and non-stop hit hip hop music soundtrack, was almost too hard for me to digest. I felt guilty for enjoying this brainless popcorn film, because I knew the screenplay left much to be desired, that the action scenes showcased Li's talent but also left a lingering sense of craving for more, that Li deserved, in his first starring vehicle, a more developed character rather than the one dimensional Han Sing. And while I could figure out from the beginning most of the twists and turns of the plot, I was distracted during the movie trying to figure out each character's motives. Nevertheless, part of me was thrilled to witness part of cinematic history: an implied romantic relationship between an Asian and an African American in a mainstream film. A small step, and a flawed one at that--because the film focuses primarily on kung fu instead of on this relationship--but a step forward nonetheless. And as a long time fan of Jet Li's, I definitely enjoyed the part where he kicked everyone's ass. Less than three days later, I went back for a second helping -- and found this time the plot became clearer, the funny moments funnier, and the action scenes more compelling because I could savor each and every move without trying to take in what was happening at the same time. Yeah, I'm a girl who likes good action flicks. So sue me. And people wonder why I opped to see this instead of "Erin Brockovich."
As elating as it was seeing Li and his team once again put on an astonishing performance, and on the big screen no less (I grew up watching Jet Li's movies on cable), as refreshing as it was witnessing an amalgamation of two cultures (re: football and kung fu) ... I sympathize with Li when he tells his fans that in this film he had no real control over the creative process, and it shows. "Romeo Must Die" is a prime example of Hollywood's attempt at packaging and selling an unfamiliar Asian legend to the mainstream audience, its attempt at establishing the film career of a young recording artist. It succeeds. Sacrificed, however, are character development, plot articulation, and artistic restraint. This film committed one of the seven deadly sins of cinema (IMO, anyway): having a constant stream of background music to speed up the pace. I do like the music (having bought the soundtrack), but there is no need to have it there eighty percent of the time. Most of the characters are cardboard cutout villains and turncoats, their lines copied from God knows how many gangster movies before. Fortunately, Aaliyah has charm and cinematic presence enough to lend believability to her role as Trish O'Dey, one of the more interesting in the batch. With time and improvement, I can definitely see her going places with this acting business. O'Dey's father Isaac is portrayed by the stern and unrelenting Delroy Lindo, an example of excellent casting. I give the filmmakers credit for masking Li's deficient language abilities by putting scenes together that highlight his boyish charm and innocence in two clashing cultures. He still seems most comfortable speaking in his native language, and it is only during the scenes with Han's father that his talent as an actor shines.
The plot is an interesting source of inner conflict for me. During the first viewing the little movie critic voice inside me kept piping up and reminding me how linear and unsurprising the plot was, how predictable. Perhaps because during the second viewing I just sat back and said, "To hell with it, I'll enjoy the movie," the plot actually moved along at a faster pace, and what was simplistic before took on a brand new twist. These are not the twists of, say, "Fight Club" caliber, but I do indeed sense that the script tries to rise above its all-encompassing hit movie packaging courtesy of Joel Silver. Another point of debate is the wonderful action sequences, though lacking the intensity of those from "The Matrix," which sometimes are so clearly staged that they distract us from Han's supposed sense of purpose. Again, the opponents are portrayed as mindless dummies who would rather have Han take them out one by one instead of, say, attacking him together all at once. However, I will not be one to complain about these flaws, since they are common ailments of films of this genre. Li's work is as exciting and original as usual, and only slightly hindered by the Mortal Kombat music (reminiscent of scenes from "The Matrix") and sometimes shaky camera work.
One thing I'd like to especially point out in favor of "Romeo": it is not afraid to have emotional moments. Most of these moments come from the interaction between Li and Aaliyah who have surprising chemistry together. These are two earnest actors at work, and it shows. My favorite moments--the scene on the couch after Collin dies, the dancing scene at the Casino--are a welcome respite from the tiresome "gangsters cleaning up" sequences obliged to supply the plot's linearity in between. Trish's playfulness was a perfect compliment to Han's shyness and determination. It is a shame that they did not have a chance to develop any sort of romance that was hinted of in the title, yet it is oddly appropriate and refreshing at the same time. Hint to filmmakers: not every film has to have a romance. These two would have made a good couple, though.
The last but most complex source of my ambivalent feelings toward the film is its approach regarding the ethnicity issue. Yes, it is elating to see that this movie even got made, got released, won over some audiences. We've come a long way, baby. It is saddening, however, as my friend Heather mentions, that they needed an action flick to do so. I would like to see yet another attempt at tackling the race issue, but in a more sober and more realistic film. Preferably not gang-related. Thankfully, however, "Romeo" was gracefully free of many stereotypes that plague other films of the same type. This made up for a lot. I am partial indeed.
I think you might have sensed a trend in my review thus far. Watching "Romeo" was a constant psychological tug-o-war for me. On one hand I bought two tickets to watch the film produced by "the producers of The Matrix,'" to watch them break down the race barrier a little bit; most of all I bought tickets to watch Jet Li kick ass. I did not expect to be touched by a platonic relationship of the most wonderful and tantalizing kind, I did not expect a smarter gangster movie than "Rush Hour." Like "Romeo," I was hopelessly conflicted. It's a film that almost achieves memorability yet fails because it is inevitably Hollywood in its gunpowder, war, and backstabbing betrayals. Somehow I think the film is stuck in this grey area because it can't go either way without becoming something else entirely. Jet Li's charm and agility almost achieve their full potential but do not, because Li and his team have not quite clicked with American production sensibilities. "Romeo" is enjoyable, but it might leave idealists and die-hard Li fans like myself with a lingering sense of disappointment. Why am I disappointed? That elusive fact is what I've spent this entire reviewing trying but failing to discover. This movie's rating is what I felt it deserved yet I hate to bestow because I needed to latch on to something much more significant in this film, and because Jet Li always lights up every movie he's in.
Rating: B- (First viewing, 3/31/00; Second viewing, 4/3/00)