Following in the footsteps of Jackie Chan ("Rush Hour") and Chow Yun-Fat ("Anna and the King"), Hong Kong action star Jet Li is trying his hand at American mainstream success with his new star vehicle "Romeo Must Die". And though this is not Li's first stateside appearance (he played the villain in "Lethal Weapon 4", while "Black Mask" from a few years ago was dubbed and re-released last year), "Romeo Must Die" marks his first appearance in a Hollywood release specifically tailored for the martial arts master-turned-actor. And though this chop-socky actioner does offer Li a chance to show off his martial arts prowess, the movie's ludicrous script and Li's thespian shortcomings make for a painfully mediocre viewing experience.
Despite the title, "Romeo Must Die" takes most of its riffs from the conventions of Hong Kong action films, as opposed to the popular work of the Bard. Essentially the tale of a man on quest to exact revenge for the death of his brother, the story casts Li as Han Sing, a former police officer rotting away in a Hong Kong jail. However, when he receives word that his brother, Po Sing (Jon Kit Lee, last seen in "The Corruptor"), has been murdered in the San Francisco Bay Area, he escapes the prison and makes his way to the United States.
Upon his arrival in Oakland, he finds that the criminal organization run by his father Ch'u Sing (Henry O) is in the midst of a 'cold war' with a rival black crime family headed by Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo of "The Cider House Rules"). Tensions are at an all-time high, aggravated by Po Sing's untimely death. In addition to the occasional racially-charged scuffle on the streets of San Francisco, both families are in a cutthroat bid to buy up waterfront property, which will ultimately be sold to a Jewish developer (Edoardo Ballerini of "The Last Days of Disco") interested in establishing a new NFL franchise and stadium.
After stealing some transportation in the form of a taxi, Han finds himself the benefactor of a fortuitous coincidence (!) when Trish O'Day (singer Aaliyah), the daughter of Isaak, happens to get in the back of his ride. Captivated by the quiet charm of her newfound friend, Trish decides to help Han uncover the identity of his brother's killer. Not surprisingly, they fall in love in the process. Pretty soon, this pair of star-crossed lovers finds themselves in the midst of an escalating war between their rival families. With the bodies piling up around them, and their own lives in constant danger, Han and Trish's deepening investigation uncovers a number of startling revelations about both their own families and the roles that they are playing in the ongoing bloodshed.
First off, I must admit that I have never been impressed with Jet Li the actor. Ever since watching his earlier work from his Hong Kong days, such as "The Bodyguard from Beijing" or "Once Upon a Time in China", he has typically limited himself to the use of three facial expressions-- mad, sad, and glad, forming what I dub the 'MSG school of acting' (though some may count 'aloof' as his fourth favorite facial expression, I consider 'aloof' to be a complete absence of facial expression). Unfortunately, despite his many years working in film, it seems that Li has made little progression on the acting front.
As the film's protagonist, Li is dull and nondescript, except for the rare instance in "Romeo Must Die" where he plays his character's lack of cultural acclimatization for laughs. Two of the film's more memorable moments where this works are in a sequence involving Han's introduction to the game of football, and a scene where Trish tries to get Han into a nightclub. But overall, it is difficult to become emotionally involved with Li's character when he remains wooden and detached throughout most of the film. Li's obvious language issues further exacerbate his minimalist acting, as he is relegated to speaking in single, short, and clipped sentences throughout the entire film. And with respect to the chemistry with his love interest, there is none-- Li and Aaliyah's scenes together are forced and awkward.
Looking at the film's screenplay, it is not surprising that the two-hour running time of "Romeo Must Die" feels longer than it actually is. In addition to a highly improbable coincidence that brings Han and Trish together, the whole waterfront land-deal backdrop of the story is riddled with plot holes. It is interesting that even though the lieutenants of the Chu and O'Day families, played respectively by Russell Wong ("The Joy Luck Club") and Isaiah Washington ("Out of Sight"), resort to killing the present waterfront landowners when they balk at selling, nobody in law enforcement or the press seem to notice the connection, even for something as prominent as an NFL stadium.
Instead of trying to get its story straight, the screenplay offers up a lot of filler, as though director Andrezej Bartkowiak (the cinematographer on "Lethal Weapon 4", in his directing debut) was trying his best to pad the film. The characters talk for the sake of talking, since the dialogue consists of little more than a lot of posturing or poor attempts at comic relief-- the Maurice character played by Anthony Anderson ("Life") is a particularly striking example of how lame the end result is. Then there's the pointless and cringe-worthy space-filling scene where Li and Aaliyah 'get jiggy with it' on a dance floor. And in an attempt to cover up the film's narrative deficiencies, hip-hop music blares constantly in the background, in the hope that no one will notice that there's no story going on here.
Mind you, most people watch Jet Li movies for the action and not the story, and to some degree, "Romeo Must Die" offers up some visceral thrills for kung fu fans. Corey Yuen, a veteran martial arts choreographer from the Hong Kong movie scene, works with Li again to create some interesting fight sequences, such as the aforementioned 'football' scene, a brawl involving a fire hose, and a fight where Li squares off against his "Black Mask" co-star Francoise Yip. The use of wirework is extensive throughout the film, allowing for some visually arresting martial arts sequences, which are further enhanced with computer graphics to produce 'virtual x-rays' of the effects of Han's blows on his opponents. Unfortunately, the fight sequences would have been more interesting if they weren't so difficult to follow-- in addition to using the jittery camera movement of 'hyper-reality' film-making, Bartkowiak frames the fight scenes too tightly, and as a result, it is often difficult to follow the action.
On some level, I supposed "Romeo Must Die" will appeal to Jet Li fans, martial arts mavens, those who didn't get enough of the martial arts sequences in "The Matrix", hip-hop disciples, and fans of the urban gangsta genre. But overall, Jet Li's first lead role is a disappointment, with his limited acting range compounded by a nonsense script and some unimpressive supporting performances. Instead of wasting your money on this drivel, go to the nearest video store and rent the recently released "Fist of Legend" from Li's Hong Kong days-- the acting may not be much better, but the action certainly is. "Romeo Must Die"... and so must this movie.