Romeo Must Die (15)
MARTIAL arts movies have always been two-a-penny, but Romeo Must Die, designed as a showcase for the talents of new discovery Jet Li, has had a much larger budget thrown at it than most.
Li, the latest export from the action movie production line that is Hong Kong, first made a significant impact in the West in Lethal Weapon 4 a couple of years ago, playing the villain.
Here, in a standardised piece of casting, he’s Han, the fish-out-of-water hero trying to discover who killed his younger brother and finding himself in the midst of a bloody gang war among the San Francisco underworld.
Like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan before him, Li has been shoehorned into a formulaic Hollywood thriller that has been tailored to fit his particular requirements. In this case, fast moving kicks and punches which hark back to the late, great Bruce Lee rather than a comparison with the jokey action of Jackie Chan.
Yet Romeo Must Die is not without its gags, primarily at the expense of rotund rapper Busta Rymes, who plays a comedic heavy working for a black hood, who has dreams of going straight, named Isaac (Delroy Lindo). Li himself also enjoys a few laughs, and the occasional one liner – “Great country. Free cars” – as he demolishes a gang and makes off with their station wagon.
Screenwriters Eric Bernt and John Jarrell, and director Andrzej Bartkowiak, have gone way back to the Seventies feel of Bruce Lee movies like The Big Boss in the way Romeo Must Die has been constructed. Li, a former Hong Kong cop jailed for keeping his mouth shut about his gangster father’s shady deals, is painted as a man of honour in a world of corruption, lies and deceit.
His trip to America is made following a thrilling prison breakout and a flight to California where he once again meets his father – a Triad-type who has re-located his entire operation to the West Coast.
Like Bruce Lee before him, he has morals and a code of honour. Faced with a deadly female adversary, he uses the body of Trish (female hip-hop singer Aaliyah), the black ganglord’s daughter with whom he has joined forces in the film’s most unlikely plot twist, to beat her to a pulp.
In that respect Romeo is old-fashioned in its construction, with Han on a traditional mission of revenge. He enjoys a platonic relationship with Trish, which may or may not turn into something more tangible. We never get to find out. Han remains pure, his mission the only thing on his mind.
Funny and solidly made, Romeo Must Die builds to a spiky, violent finale. The building blocks, which take it there, include some fresh approaches to screen mayhem through the use of x-ray effects which illustrate bones being broken as Han displays his martial arts skills.
However, unlike Lee and Chan, Li makes use of wire stunts – hanging from wires to freeze momentarily in the air, turn and demonstrate another kick, spin or punch – as he faces off with the bad guys.
It is not as comically choreographed as Chan’s films but it adds a distracting element to what should be visceral thrills – an air of disbelief at what is so obviously an assisted fight sequence rather than the open-mouthed wonder which greeted the stupendous scraps enacted by Bruce Lee.