Is America ready for the Hong Kong action style? Certainly there are many fans of the balletic, guns-and-martial-arts, fly-through-the-air movies that have inspired everyone from Quentin Tarantino to the Wachowski brothers. And yet Hollywood still seems to have had trouble marketing the concept. Yes, John Woo gets high-profile projects, but the only time he actually got to work with a legitimate martial artist (if you can call him that) was in Hard Target with Jean-Claude Van Damme. And poor Chow Yun-Fat has been stuck in lukewarm buddy pics with Mira Sorvino and Mark Wahlberg. Jackie Chan's Rush Hour did a little better at the box office, but it was primarily a Chris Tucker movie; the Miramax rereleases of Chan's earlier films (which, notably, were shortened and dubbed for us attention-deficit-disordered Americans) have made progressively less and less money, possibly because stateside audiences aren't used to action films that are as comedic, and relatively bloodless, as Chan's.
Things have been looking up recently, however. With the smash success of The Matrix last year, audiences proved able to accept Hong Kong-style wire work in action scenes — given a sci-fi explanation for it. And for Lethal Weapon 4, Joel Silver (also producer of The Matrix) brought in Hong Kong star Jet Li to fill the relatively thankless role of the guy who had to play villain opposite Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, and Chris Rock. Equipped with limited English skills, Li not only gave his character a silent grace (not that he could have been heard over the din of Rock and Pesci), but he administered a serious ass-whipping to Mel Gibson. Unlike the quirkier Chan, this was a guy Americans could figure out with ease. And unlike many of our own action stars, he was physically expressive to boot.
Now, finally, the studios have done it right. Romeo Must Die may not have the best script in the world, but it brings Jet Li to the big screen in a way all action junkies, not just the video-store geeks, will appreciate. There are wire stunts aplenty here, in utter defiance of the laws of physics — Li and co-star Russell Wong leap into the air and then twist from side to side to take out foes all around them — but at this point we've been conditioned by The Matrix and numerous fantasy martial-arts video games to accept it. And there's one ultracool effect guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet: At key moments during certain fights, the image suddenly switches to X-ray, and we get to see the bone break, or the heart get impaled, or what have you, from inside the body at the moment of impact. Of course, such thrills are not for the squeamish, but the squeamish probably don't belong in an action movie audience to begin with. Not surprisingly, this is all brought to you by Joel Silver, whose recent efforts have put the similarly maniacal Jerry Bruckheimer to shame.
The story is archetypal Hong Kong, and bears resemblance to Rush Hour on several points. Two rival gangs, one Chinese and one African-American, have declared a truce as they try to make a deal that will sell all their valuable waterfront territories to a major developer, giving both gangs enough of a paycheck to go legit once the negotiations are over. Naturally, it's not gonna be that simple: Unknown forces within the gangs are conspiring to break the truce, notably by lynching the spoiled son of the top Chinese ganglord (Henry O). When news of the son's death reaches Hong Kong, the trouble really begins. See, the Chinese ganglord has another son. And guess who it happens to be?
The moment of revelation is priceless. First we see Hong Kong, then the prison, then a long row of prisoners in gray uniforms, seated in a cafeteria. Pan over to one prisoner in particular: Jet Li, who stands up, eyes brimming with sorrow, as he suddenly reads the news. As the guards come to force him to sit down, he clobbers them with his steel dinner plate, only to get beaten down like Rodney King. Already we have learned from this scene that: 1) Jet Li can convey more in his eyes than most American action heroes using their entire bodies. 2) Unlike, say, Steven Seagal, Li is willing to get his ass kicked on screen.
Before long, Li is hanging upside down in handcuffs, surrounded by about six of the guards who beat him up. Needless to say, this is not a fair fight. Six dead guards later, Li has unlocked the cell door with his mouth and escaped to the U.S., where, in one of those movie coincidences, he crosses paths with Trish O'Day (R&B star Aaliyah), the rebellious daughter of his father's archrival Isaak (the always reliable Delroy Lindo). Trish initially mistakes him for a cab driver (since all foreigners in movies are cab drivers, get it?), and enlists his aid in escaping from her gang-assigned bodyguard Maurice (a hilarious Anthony Anderson, of TV's Hang Time). Although their chance meeting is amicable, it doesn't seem that they'll have any reason to see each other again, at least before Li discovers that his brother's last phone call on Earth was made to the store where she works. Trish, who is apparently the only one with any morals in her entire family, has been trying to stay out of the family business, but sure enough, as the plot escalates, her brother is treated to a fate similar to the one doled out to Li's. And, as Li says in the key scene used in the movie's trailer, “That … was a mistake.”
Since Lethal Weapon 4, Li has picked up English quickly. Judging by his delivery here, he'd make a more convincing American than a certain Austrian muscleman or Belgian kickboxer. The production also played to Li's strengths by having him perform some key scenes in subtitled Chinese. Not that the dialogue actually, you know, matters, but it helps him get to a level of emotional truth that the mere act of breaking stuff alone wouldn't achieve. And speaking of breaking stuff: When will gangsters ever learn not to rely so heavily on glass furniture? Or those large window panes that just happen to be stored among the crates in that big warehouse on the waterfront?
Aaliyah makes a capable acting debut, although she has about one too many scenes that seem calculated to prove that she can cry on cue. Ability appreciated, but we don't need it here. Less crying, less talking, more kicking, if you please. With Li's help, she actually proves fairly adept at the last in a scene where the two must fight a female assassin, and Li tells her that he can't hit a woman. The solution? Manipulate Aaliyah like a kung-fu puppet, in an elaborate dance that naturally ends in disaster for the assassin. Those expecting much of a romance (i.e., the date you drag to this film) may be disappointed: In spite of the title, which seemingly references Romeo and Juliet (since none of the characters herein is named or even nicknamed “Romeo”), this is Hollywood, and we still don't do interracial kisses unless it's an art-house flick.
Veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (The Verdict, Speed) makes an impressive feature directing debut, although producer Silver was undoubtedly in control the entire time. The one misstep, however, is the excessive number of quick cuts during many of the martial arts scenes. Li is fast enough that it becomes difficult to follow the action if the camera and editing are being maneuvered with equal speed. Thankfully, the final battle is more simply shot, even featuring occasional use of slo-mo, which is an asset rather than a cliché when dealing with a high-speed hero like the aptly named Jet Li. Will this movie make him a Hollywood star? It's hard to say. But as a solo showcase, and a better-than-average actioner, it stands a better chance than either Rush Hour or The Corruptor did for their respective Eastern leads.