Review: Romeo Must Die (2000)
starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Anthony Anderson, and Russell Wong.
Fight Choreography by Corey Yuen
Directed by Andrew Bartkowiak
Soon after the success of Lethal Weapon 4, Joel Silver was eager to get Jet Li into his own film, and Warner Brothers thought they had the new Bruce Lee on their hands, and decided that not only would they debut Jet Li, and even more importantly Aaliyah, they would use the film as a testing ground for effects that were being developed at the time for the Matrix Reloaded. What ensues is an absolute mess of a film that did everything wrong in introducing Jet to the USA.
The film starts out with what must be the coolest opening credit sequence in film history. I hope they paid the credits guy and DMX a lot of dough, though I think DMX took most of that cash. We soon are treated to a club scene in which Po, a rich chinese guy watch two other chinese girls do all sorts of seducing dancing and such. The reason why I noted their ethnicity is because they are in a Black club, with everyone watching them angrily. If you were to use this film to gauge African-American and Chinese-American relations, you’d think we hated the shit out of each other. Anyway, soon the bouncer shows up and asks them to leave, which makes no sense why the hell he let them in if the place is evidently “Blacks Only”? Po explains that he was there to meet somebody when his bodyguard Kai shows up and tells Po to leave. Of course a few of the bouncer’s pals challenge Kai to a fight, and he gives them one, full of inexplicable wire stunts, bad camera angles put to music that will account for nearly every fight scene in this film.
After DMX comes out and rhymes his lines, Kai and Po let it be known that there was a gang war between the Chinese and Blacks, though no one explains why this is. The next day finds Po dead as doornail. His father, the chinese gang lord is told, and he has to have someone to tell his son Han that his little brother Po has left this mortal coil.We’re introduced next to Isaac, played by the always dependable Delroy Lindo, and Mac, played with slimy confidence by Isaiah Washington. They both fear retribution for Po’s death even though they weren’t responsible.
We are next introduced to Han played by Jet Li, whom we find in a chinese prison for who knows what, as we aren’t told that either. We do know he was a former cop, and that it involved his no good Dad and brother, but that’s all. An inmate delivers the message that his brother was killed and Han decides to leave. Really. So he is able to escape and book a flight to the USA and can someone please explain why the HELL he didn’t do this earlier?!
After being subjected to a horrible fight using x-ray special effects to show Han breaking some poor schmuck’s arm, as if that was necessary, Jet easily leaves for the USA, once again proving that airline security isn’t for shit, letting an escaped felon get to U.S soil. Meantime Isaac decides he wants his daughter Trish, as played by Aaliyah, under protection, fearing an attempt on her life by the Chinese. So who does he send but Maurice played by Anthony Anderson, which tells me that he really didn’t like her as much as he says, else he would’ve sent some Michael Jai White lookin’ dude. In fact, that would have made the film soooooooo much better. Soon she gets away from Maurice and hides in a cab that just happened to be stolen by Han. The two share a requisite chemistry-filled (or not, depending on how you look at it) ride to the store she owns, which is a bit weird since Aaliyah was in her early 20’s and Jet in his late 30’s, and the relationship in this film comes off more like really good friendship than a romance.
After a golf game where we meet Roth, an executive who is partnering with Isaac and Han’s father over some deal to build an NFL stadium, in a scene that is obviously there to show scenes of veiled racism against Isaac and show that Black guys can’t play golf, and I really want to hit everyone involved in this scene, that plays on stereotypes as a story beat.
Han shows up to his brother pad and decides to live there, and attends his funeral, which was a really well done scene, with most everyone else wearing black while he wears white a la Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury. After an argument with his dad we are graced with a thankfully short but painful to watch spar between Han and Kai. Russell Wong looks completely out of his league here, and the slow motion and quick cuts are all that keeps him looking as if he might be a viable threat for Jet Li. He isn’t.
We are then forced to endure watching Han get into a football game with Maurice and the thugs he embarrassed earlier, and they all act as if Chinese people have never seen football. Jet get knocked around until he impresses Trish by turning it into Kung-fu football, which is actually a cool idea, but the pointless use of wire harnesses ruins the entire scene.
Soon Isaac’s son Colin is tossed out of a window and falls to his death by unknown assailants, and this puts Trish at odds with her father in scenes which are there to let Aaliyah show that she can act, which she succeeded in doing for the most part. Han and Trish then team up, checking out a list of addresses he found in his brother’s belongings, and this leads to an MTV-shot car chase that s chopped to hell, and in a rip off of better Hong Kong flicks, Jet and Aaliyah take out one opponent Dancing with the Stars style.
After Montage sequences of Mac and Kai killing off their own people in various ways, Kai by having a bunch of Chinese mob bosses chopped up in the back of a butcher’s truck. What bothers me more is that they were in the back of a restaurant. Ick. Don’t order the catch of the day…
This leads to what has got to be the lowest low of Jet’s career, being taken to that same black club from the beginning of the film, and forced to act hip hop so they can get into a club, and subjects himself to going onto the dance floor and dancing like a 4-year-old while Aaliyah dances around him as he looks on cluelessly. Jet must have felt a little sliver of dignity leave him.
After DMX is thankfully killed, Han has to have a final battle, if you want to call it that, with Maurice and his crew. A horrible fight ensues full of bad comedy, worse special effects, and only the fire hose/rope dart sequence merits any mention. After Trish and Han deal with Mac, it leads to the inevitable fight versus Kai. A decent fight, but this is a Jet Li film here. The bar’s much higher than that. Russell Wong does his best to keep up, but he isn’t nearly as graceful on screen as Jet is, and half as fast. Of course effects and camera angles and wire harness do their best to mask this. Kai dies an x-ray effects laden death, and Han faces his father, who kills himself when Han tells him he won’t go to prison for him again, ’cause the gruel there sucks.
So…all the bad guys are dead, Han runs to Trish in laughable slow motion, and they live happily ever after, and we can thankfully put this film away.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (3) Dreadful. I love Corey Yuen, but he mailed this one in, but I’m sure Joel Silver had as much to do with it. Too many wires that defy gravity too often are used, and not really all that well. I have seen and expect better than this from him. This was a paycheck film.
STUNTS: (5) The stunt men did their job adequately. Nothing thrilling here, but not bad either.
DIRECTION: (3) Andrew Bartkowiak shouldn’t be let near a martial arts film. Unfortunately he’ll do a few more. Shot MTV style with too many close-ups and quick edited action that makes it difficult to follow. The use of special effects wasn’t necessary and a complete waste of Jet’s skills. The story was mediocre at best, and Bartkowiak was more interested in the shots rather than the content (i.e. heart) he’s supposed to be filming. Don’t even get me started on the stereotyping…
STAR POWER: (6) Isn’t this supposed to be a Jet Li film? So why is Jet in it so little? Aaliyah acquits herself well for a first time actress, and you can always count on Delroy Lindo. Russell Wong and Anthony Anderson try to bring the whole damn film down, and actually somewhat succeed.
FINAL GRADE: (4) Jet Li’s starring American debut is an absolute mess, through no fault of his own. The direction and many creative decisions led to this, and this would paint the picture for most of Jet’ s American output. This film was obviously trying to place Aaliyah (R.I.P.) and the effects front and center, so much so I’m not sure this is even a Jet Li film. He deserved so much better than this.