Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jet Li, Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, DMX, Delroy Lindo, Anthony Anderson, Francoise Yip
Written by: Eric Bernt, John Jarrell, based on a story by Mitchell Kapner
Directed by: Andrzej Bartkowiak
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some language and brief nudity
Running Time: 115
Date: 03/20/2000

Romeo Must Die (2000)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Wherefore Art Thou?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jet Li deserves better than this.

Jet Li is an extraordinary artist, with moves the likes of which American moviegoers rarely see. He is Fred Astaire to Jackie Chan's Gene Kelly. Why, then, are we given a movie with some great work by Jet Li that's directed and edited so badly that his efforts are all but obscured?

Li and choreographer Corey Yuen come up with at least four great fight scenes for the new Romeo Must Die. One has Li handcuffed and hanging upside down by one foot. Another has Li defeating his enemies by using their clothes against them (belts, jackets, etc.), yet another has Li using a firehose to defeat his enemies, and the best one has Li fighting Francoise Yip (Rumble in the Bronx, Black Mask). He can't bring himself to hit a girl, so in an extraordinary ballet-like sequence, he uses co-star and love interest Aaliyah Houghton as his weapon. He uses her fists and her legs and feet to do his fighting. These scenes should have knocked moviegoers out of their seats.

But no.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak messes it all up. Let me say his name again. Andrzej Bartkowiak. This is his first movie after being a fairly decent cinematographer (The Verdict, Prizzi's Honor, and Speed. He met Jet Li while photographing Lethal Weapon 4). He should be shipped to a desert island and left there. This guy makes the graceful Jet Li look like he's trying to fight his way out of a giant bowl of chocolate pudding. There are at least thirty or forty cuts for every fight scene, which is too fast for the eye to follow. Jet Li is good enough that he doesn't need cuts. Watch films by the great action directors, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, or Howard Hawks, and you'll see that the key to a great action scene is one word: clarity. It's not hard. Show us the space and give us a medium-to-wide shot. We want to be able to see Jet Li move. But Andrzej Bartkowiak deprives us of this. With all his shaky camera angles and fast cuts, he may as well have left the lens cap on.

But it doesn't stop there. The screenplay is horrible and should have been round-filed. It's by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell from a story by Mitchell Kapner. The movie is full of bad guys who say "well, well, well," at the hero and cackle villainously at their own jokes and girls who get kidnapped and scream, "let me GO!".

The "plot" concerns a gang war between Chinese and African-Americans over waterfront property in Oakland. A young entrepreneur is trying to buy up all the land to build a new stadium for the Raiders. And of course, both gangs have traitors that are trying to sabotage the peaceful negotiations between the gangs. And of course, both traitors are obvious from the start, even though the movie tries to hide them from us. Strangely, the excellent actors Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington play two of the gang members.

What's so aggravating is that talented directors like Woo, Lam, and Tsui are wasted on lifeless lumps like Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that Jackie Chan and Jet Li have to settle for crap like Romeo Must Die and hacks like Andrzej Bartkowiak. Even more infuriating is that a movie like The Matrix takes the trouble to correctly choreograph and photograph its action scenes just like a Hong Kong movie, and then puts Keanu Reeves in the lead instead of Jet Li. If Hollywood can ever get over its fear and prejudice of Asian artists, maybe it can get some of them together to deliver a truly magnificent film worthy of them.

In the meantime, Jet Li has starred in some excellent films that I recommend renting instead of plunking down your eight bucks for Romeo Must Die. The best two, without a doubt, are Swordsman II and Once Upon a Time in China (both 1991). Then there are Fong Sai Yuk (1993) and Fist of Legend (1994), both directed by Corey Yuen, who choreographed Li's fight scenes in Romeo Must Die. Since Yuen had directing experience, I wonder why he wasn't allowed to take over when it became clear that Andrzej Bartkowiak was ruining his work?

Sigh. Jet Li really deserves better than this.

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