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Improving On Shakespeare With Martial-Arts Action In 'Romeo Must Die.'

By James DiGiovanna

APRIL 3, 2000:  WHAT, IF ANYTHING, is missing from the great works of Shakespeare? Certainly not romance, pathos, intrigue, multi-layered characters or subtle lessons in morality. Nope, the one thing lacking from the great Bard's work are scenes of savage martial-arts action as only the stunning Jet Li can perform them.

Rectifying this error, Romeo Must Die picks up the plot from Romeo And Juliet, but goes far beyond it in the area of wild-eyed fighting and high-powered weaponry.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Romeo Must Die starts with a scene of two hot chicks making out on the dance floor of a hip-hop club. But when would-be Capulets and Montagues meet, they don't wimpily bite their thumbs while fanning their rapiers and épées. No, they kick kung fu butt and pop a few caps in each other's asses. Take that, Mercutio!

When the film begins, Po, son of crimelord Ch'u Sing, has wandered into a nightclub in an African-American neighborhood. Some discussion of racial injustice and the combined efforts of all peoples of color to work together against the hegemony of white culture fails to ensue, and lots of asses wind up getting kicked by Po's martial-arts-and-cocaine fueled feet. Then some heavy weaponry appears, and the scene calms.

Only...a few hours later Po is found dead. Could it be the doing of Sing's rival, Isaak O'Day (played by the ever-delightful Delroy Lindo)? O'Day controls the black neighborhoods of Oakland's waterfront, while Sing controls the Chinese neighborhoods. Both are vying for the attention of the evil Mr. Roth, who, on top of being white, is so evil that he wants to own an NFL franchise. Said franchise requires all the waterfront property in Oakland, so Roth is striking deals with Isaak and Sing, who in turn are both trying to become legitimate businessmen by killing and blowing up anyone who won't sell out to them.

Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, Sing's other son, Han, is in prison. He learns of his brother's death and decides to use his super martial arts powers for good, by busting out of jail, stowing away across the Pacific, and stealing some cars so he can hunt for his brother's killers. See, Han was a policeman, so he's interested in justice.

Han is played by Jet Li, who, in layman's terms, "rules." Jet Li is not only the finest martial artist currently working in films (Li was an actual world champion in the Chinese martial art of Wushu), he's also totally lacking in the kind of postured coolness that makes American action heroes so annoying to watch.

Li is so earnestly simple that he seems like the underdog everyman even when he's doing a flying backwards somersault to land on someone's groin.

Such groin-crunching grabs the attention of Isaak O'Day's daughter, Trish, who doesn't like crime and who buys ice cream cones for the neighborhood kids. Since Trish and Han are the good children of evil parents, romantic sparks start to fly between them. Well, sort of; maybe the producers were worried about the interracial love thing, or maybe they thought the mushy stuff would get in the way of the kung fu action, but they don't even kiss.

Instead, just as the original Romeo and Juliet do, they team up in order to find the conspirators who have killed Han's brother.

Romeo Must Die was directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, who is best known as one of the finest technical cinematographers in Hollywood, having lensed Speed, Dante's Peak and Falling Down. Romeo marks his first time in the director's chair, but it's clear that he didn't leave cinematographer Glen MacPherson to his own devices, as Romeo Must Die shows all the signs of Bartkowiak's craft.

Not only are the fight scenes visually exciting, they are extremely clear. Many martial arts films, especially those of more recent vintage, rely far too heavily on closeups, making the action difficult to follow. Bartkowiak avoids this mistake, shifting between closeup and long shot as needed to clarify the action. The choreography is also fabulous, aided in large part by Jet Li's considerable skills, and some Matrix-style special effects. One of the best touches in the fight scenes involves an X-ray effect to show bones breaking, which is so cool that I'm sure it will become a standard shot.

Clearly, no martial arts film is going to be Citizen Kane, and if you're looking for the kind of subtle nuance that marks Shakespeare's best work, Romeo Must Die might fall just an iota short. But if all you're after is some of the best fight scenes ever filmed, and a plot that doesn't get in the way of the fight scenes, plus extremely hot young actors in tight leather clothing, plus some fighting, Romeo Must Die is probably a much better bet than Shakespeare in the Park -- except for the part about the hot young actors in tight leather clothing, of course. There, it's all Shakespeare.

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