Romeo Must Die

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ROMEO MUST DIE

2/10

US 2000

dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak

scr. Eric Bernt, John Jarrell (story: Mitchell Kapner)

cin. Glen MacPherson

stars Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo

115 minutes!!!

The best thing about Romeo Must Die is Aaliyah’s smash hit ‘Try Again’ – but you’ll probably have heard it a thousand times already, it’s only played once, over the end credits, after two painful hours of clunky movie. I only hope Andrzej Bartkowiak doesn’t heed the advice of the song’s repeated refrain: “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.” This is his debut as a director, and it will hopefully also prove to be his swansong. It’s less a movie than a cynical marketing concept cranked out without any visible care or thought.

You’d never guess it from Romeo, but Bartkowiak is a talented cinematographer – he gave the recent dud Gossip a stunning surface sheen the movie didn’t deserve – and you can understand why he was given his chance in the hot seat. But he turns out to be incompetent at the just about all the skills the director’s job requires, even the basic framing of shots which you’d think would come naturally to an experienced Director of Photography. Scenes are confusingly edited, and scored in a ham-fisted manner, actors are apparently left to their own devices, and, worst of all, the pacing is hopeless. There’s no way such a slam-bang action movie should be allowed to sprawl over 115 minutes, and it drags on interminably.

Allegedly an updating of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo Must Die is nothing of the sort. Only the barest bones of the Shakespeare play’s premise are retained, and you suspect few of the cast or crew have read the original text since school days, if at all. Jet Li and Aaliyah play the offspring of rival gang lords – one black, one Chinese – in modern-day Oakland, California, just over the water from San Francisco. There’s no grand, tragic passion between the pair – I don’t think they ever even kiss – instead their ‘romance’ is a functional plot point in a perfunctory, amazingly predictable script that’s less a screenplay than a mechanism to allow periodic displays of kung-fu pyrotechnics.

Bartkowiak’s evident non-interference with the actors generally results in audition-standard performances which feel like first takes. Experienced pro Lindo can look after himself, but the lack of directorial guidance allows many of the youngsters to zoom fatally over the top – Michael Anderson’s broad turn as a buffoonish bodyguard is especially embarrassing – so all credit to Aaliyah for avoiding the pitfalls on her screen debut, and to Russell Wong, who brings star quality to his underwritten gangster role.

The film’s many flaws might be just about forgivable if the fight scenes delivered the goods, but they’re so muddily shot and edited, and so noisily scored, that it’s often difficult to work out what’s going on. Romeo Must Die employs two potentially interesting technical tricks – momentary slips into x-ray to illustrate the devastating effect of blows, and Matrix-style CGI enhancements that allows the kung-fu fighters to defy gravity – but Bartkowiak has no idea what to do with them, and they end up as off-putting gimmicks, detracting from rather than adding to what should be the big set pieces.

Most of the film is laughable, the dialogue including gems such as “If I say there’s caviar in the mountain, you just bring the crackers,” but the absolute nadir of ludicrousness is reached in the scene where Li has to fight an motorbike-riding adversary who – wow! – turns out to be a woman. This poses a problem for Li because, for no good reason, his character refuses to fight females. He has no objection to do so using the compliant Aaliyah as a human weapon, however – and if it sounds daft on the page, it’s ten times worse on the screen.