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ROMEO MUST DIE: less star-crossed lovers, more impossible physics (2000 in Film #12)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 24th, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die

Just to underscore the box office power Erin Brockovich had at this point in March 2000, Romeo Must Die actually debuted in 2nd place at the box office, despite being the highest grossing new release of that week.

On paper, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s action picture might have appeared enough to see off Erin’s David vs Goliath drama, even with the star wattage of Julia Roberts behind it. Romeo Must Die front-lines two major new stars of the moment from the Chinese and African-American community, contains a plot filled with Hong Kong-action cinema styled ‘chopsocky’, not to mention a surfeit of guns and a couple of car chases thrown in, and would have appealed to a broader audience, particularly of teenagers and people of colour. And while by no means a flop, almost quadrupling its fairly minuscule budget, Romeo Must Die nonetheless is barely remembered two decades on save for one tragic factor: Aaliyah.

One of the biggest stars in hip-hop and R’n’B of the late 90’s into the early 2000’s, Aaliyah was a child prodigy mentored by R. Kelly (which is worrying with the benefit of hindsight…) who broke out into an era-defining star who, to many, was changing the face of her musical sub-genre around her. Aaliyah would have no doubt had a hugely successful career and still be relevant today. Fate took a cruel turn, sadly, when in August 2001–less than a month before the epoch-defining events of September 11th, Aaliyah was killed along with much of her retinue in the Bahamas when her private jet crashed before takeoff. She was a mere 21 years old. Romeo Must Die was not the final film she starred in during her budding cinematic career (that honour goes to the poorly made sequel to Interview with a Vampire, Queen of the Damned), but it was the most successful.

The fact Romeo Must Die only stands out because of the sad, untimely death of its co-star is a telling indictment of a leaden misfire which has not aged well at all.

As you might have gleaned from the title, Romeo Must Die (very) loosely bases the central plot around the Capulet and Montague families from William Shakespeare’s best known play, Romeo and Juliet, which is certainly part of a revisionist late-90’s trend in American cinema to update the Bard in modern sub-genres.

You can blame Baz Luhrmann’s fairly iconic mid-90’s update of the play in Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers, for encouraging Shakespeare’s usage in modern contexts – given that film based the story, using Shakespeare’s prose, within an urban gangster setting. 10 Things I Hate About You would later memorably twist The Taming of the Shrew into a perky high-school comedy while Ethan Hawke will soon play an updated Hamlet in the corporate sphere later in the year. Romeo Must Die is just the latest example by 2000 of arbitrarily throwing in the legendary playwright in some effort to highbrow what is very definitely otherwise lowbrow action movie content. Romeo Must Die constantly feels like a B-movie fighting against the more serious attempts the film is making to be cool and sexy, when it would have no doubt ended up far more successful had it just lightened up and accepted how silly it is.

Jet Li, after all, is playing a super-human character in Han Sing aka Akbar (a not at all racist joke about him claiming to pass as a Muslim cab driver), who busts out of prison to avenge his brother’s murder, only to end up caught in a Californian turf war between a pair of Chinese and African-American gangster families vying for power and control. Li was hot property by this point having stood out as the only reason to bother watching Lethal Weapon 4, where producer Joel Silver ported him in and he felt like a truly scary, ‘alien’ threat up against the ageing, American as apple pie Detectives Riggs and Murtaugh.

Silver had begun to feel that American action cinema was lacking freshness and looked to the vibrant Hong Kong action cinema scene—which had already translated over the wildly entertaining Hard Boiled and influenced Jackie Chan’s breakout hit in Hollywood with action comedy Rush Hour—as a way to inject some new impetus into the genre, as Sabrina Q Yu recounts in Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom:

Given the fact that almost all the film talents that Hollywood has imported from Hong Kong are working in the martial arts/action arena, it is not difficult to work out the intentions of Hollywood filmmakers are to use Hong Kong action to make a profit. In an interview, Joel Silver says that, because he was annoyed by seeing nothing fresh or original in American action films, he decided to make Romeo Must Die. But Silver’s search for the ‘fresh and original’ is obviously confined to the domain of action scenes only. He proudly mentions one new element tried out in the film – a scene in which Li’s martial arts fighting is presented in X-ray—commenting: “when we played that scene in America, audiences went out of their fuckin’ minds”. Elsewhere, Silver neatly sums up the way in which Li is used in the film: “Jet Li is our special effect”.

When you watch Romeo Must Die, a great deal of this makes sense. The script barely characterises Li, in his full English-language debut, and focuses squarely on stunts which at times simply beggar belief.

At the time, no doubt buoyed by the science-fiction bullet time and kung-fu which had wowed audiences in 1999’s The Matrix, the appetite for this fusion of special effects with martial arts stunt work was obviously there, but the x-ray effect with time simply looks naff, ported out of an average 90’s video fighting game, and it certainly didn’t breed a legion of similar films employing these techniques. If anything, audiences responded far more to the genuine, hard-edged action realism Hong Kong cinema would later use to influence pictures such as The Raid or Headshot—starring actors influenced by Li such as Iko Uwais—and these are techniques which would even bake into Western action franchises such as Jason Bourne, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and the Daniel Craig-era James Bond series. Romeo Must Die now looks spectacularly old hat and at times plain ridiculous when lined up against such pictures, awkwardly attempting to infuse the hyper-reality of Hong Kong action with the grit of an American crime drama, and the two never really ever come together.

In fact, it’s remarkable just how little action there even *is* in Bartkowiak’s film, with moments of Li fighting punctuated by what feel like acres of scenes attempting to forward the morass of a needlessly complicated plot. It oddly enough leaves Aaliyah to try and do the emotional heavy lifting as Trish, the daughter of Delroy Lindo’s conflicted crime baron, who ends up helping Li’s Han to expose the truth behind his brother’s death – the Juliet, ostensibly, to his Romeo, with Han working rogue again his Chinese crime baron father. Strangely, however, there is never really any actual romance between the two, defying the whole point of the Shakespearean allusions in the story.

The script is more interested in Trish’s difficult relationship with her father, and Aaliyah—while an engaging screen presence who could well have developed into a strong actress—just doesn’t have the experience (or the dialogue) to be anything other than one-note. She and Li have zero chemistry and it just makes for an awkward pairing, especially in a terribly put together fight sequence that never would be made today: Li using Aaliyah as a weapon against a female Chinese fighter because “I cannot fight a girl!”. Yeah. Romeo Must Die, therefore, is an entirely forgettable and frequently quite dull experience which never lives up to the promise of bringing together the depth of Shakespeare and the verve of Hong Kong action cinema.

It’s worth your time alone for a glimpse at the star Aaliyah could have become, had she not passed on before her time, even if the film itself is no fitting epitaph.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

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