Rated R - Running Time: 1:55 - Released 3/22/00

Although I'm not much of a fan of action movies, particularly of the Kung Fu variety, I must say that Andrzej Bartkowiak's Romeo Must Die, featuring Hong Kong star Jet Li in his first starring role in an American-made film, is one of the best I've seen. With an intelligent script, real, fleshed out characters, and surprisingly eye-catching cinema, this film rivals the Lethal Weapon series (in which Li has appeared as a villain) for quality in the kick-and-shoot genre.

Written by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell, based on the story by Mitchell Kapner, Romeo is set in an area of the New York City waterfront which is controlled half by Chinese and half by blacks. In spite of the fact that there is a vicious animosity between the two sectors, their leaders have decided to put aside their differences in order to settle a major real estate deal. Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo), the black version of the Godfather, and Ch'u Sing (Henry O), his Chinese counterpart, plan to buy out all the waterfront properties and sell the entire parcel to the NFL for a new football stadium. But after Ch'u's son Po (Jon Kit Lee) is executed by the gangstas, tensions begin to build. When he hears the news, Po's brother Han (Li) escapes from a Hong Kong prison and travels to America to discover the identity of his brother's killers. By chance, he meets Isaak's daughter Trish (Aaliyah Houghton), and the two begin a flirtatious relationship. She at first puts off his questions about who killed his brother, but when her own brother Colin (D.B. Woodside) is murdered, she realizes they must work together to bring the insanity to an end. Meanwhile, O'Day and Ch'u maintain a façade of friendship while their assistants (Isaiah Washington and Russell Wong) continue to ratchet up the interracial violence.

I'm not at all sure how to judge this film. I suppose a fan of the Kung Fu genre goes to see the fist-and-foot action, and this is the least impressive part of the film. Jet Li is legendary for his martial acrobatics, and he does indeed do some amazing, well-choreographed moves in this film, but the fight scenes are digitally fiddled with to the point that his skill is almost irrelevant. When you have guys with computers who can make it look like you're hovering in the air for five minutes stomping repeatedly on peoples' faces, it doesn't really matter who's playing the lead role. You could have Orson Welles doing it.

What impresses me about this film is its consistency in terms of characterization. Lindo, Houghton, Li, Washington, and Wong all craft believable people from the pages of the script; there's some real acting going on here. Jet Li still has a way to go before he'll get a best actor nomination, but alongside Houghton he is not bad — at one point I think I actually saw a tear welling up in his eye. The relationship between those two is sweet and believable, thanks mainly to Houghton, and the sense of bad blood between the races is brought out well between the principals on both sides. Lindo, seen recently in The Cider House Rules, exudes class and elegance as the black crime leader. Also, the cinematography by Glen MacPherson deserves special note; fine scenery is something one does not expect in the genre.

For hard-core fans of Kung Fu movies, people who love to watch a martial arts master work his craft unaided by photographic trickery, this film may be a flop. But if your taste for a well-developed story takes precedence over the desire for realistic fight sequences, Romeo is not a bad bet. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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