March 26, 2000 -- "Romeo Must Die" is a Hollywood movie that is a lot like a standard Hong Kong action movie. There are some differences: Most of the dialogue is spoken in English, instead of the usual Chinese (which is then badly dubbed into English for American audiences), and the plot makes sense to the western mind. The martial arts action is enhanced with the latest digital effects. It has more polish, but it is the same kind of product.
The best kung fu movies are like opera. There are exaggerated dramatic and comedic elements interspersed with ballet, the ballet of well-staged martial arts combat. Here, we have the drama of Han Sing's (played by Hong Kong action star Jet Li of "Lethal Weapon 4") brother, Po (played by Jon Kit Lee) being murdered. Han Sing breaks out of prison in Hong Kong and comes to America to find who killed his brother.
The prison escape features some great martial arts action scenes and some comic scenes as well. At one point, Sing, wipes out several guards while he is chained and is hanging from the ceiling by one leg. The movie establishes right away that you don't want to mess with this guy.
In Oakland, where Sing's brother was killed, he finds his father as the head of a Chinese crime syndicate fighting with another crime family led by Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo of "The Cider House Rules") for some valuable waterfront property. Sing suspects someone from O'Day's organization had his brother killed, so he, being a former cop, investigates. He runs across O'Day's pretty daughter, Trish (played by Aaliyah).
This is where the "Romeo and Juliet" part of the plot comes in, two star-crossed lovers, but they really aren't lovers. They simply find themselves after the same thing, the truth. Trish and Sing are both trying to find out what is causing a series of killings that seem to have their two families headed towards war. It turns out to be part of a larger scheme.
There is a large amount of treachery and betrayal in the story. Numerous people are killed in various ways. There are also some comic scenes, like a strange kung-fu football game, for instance. One of Trish's bodyguards, Maurice (Anthony Anderson of "Liberty Heights") is a frequent comedic foil for Sing's martial arts talents.
The real star of the show, however, are those martial arts duels. Special effects create impossible acrobatic feats, where people hover in the air, whirl one way, then change direction in defiance of the laws of gravity and motion. It makes for breath-taking aerial ballets. Another interesting special effect lets us see inside the bodies of Sing's opponents so we can actually "see" their bones breaking. It sounds gross, but it is interesting.
Jet Li has a strong screen presence as the star. His English isn't very good, but viewers don't notice since his speaking lines are kept to a minimum. Aaliyah does a good job to keep from being overwhelmed by all the action. She is practically the only woman with a speaking part in the film. Delroy Lindo does a nice job of making you sympathize with his character. He comes across as smart, honorable and caring. Anthony Anderson is good for comic relief.
The main problem with the movie, however, is the story. It is very weak. It seems to exist mainly as a vehicle to attach all the fight scenes in a string. It doesn't work as a love story. It doesn't work as a murder mystery. There is some drama at the end in a very emotional showdown between two characters, but overall, it doesn't have that big dramatic kick or the level of character development needed to make a great Hong Kong action film (like John Woo's "The Killer," for instance). You need powerful drama to go with that great ballet if you're going to have a great opera. It rates a C+
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