Unfortunately

Romeo Must Die

on March 22, 2000 by Wade Major
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   Fans of Hong Kong action superstar Jet Li will find themselves vacillating between relief and disappointment while watching "Romeo Must Die," finally landing on the side of the latter as the filmmakers ultimately prove themselves only marginally more knowledgeable about Li's appeal than their "Lethal Weapon 4" predecessors.
   What was originally conceived (hastily) as a kind of modern take on "Romeo and Juliet" winds up looking more like an average straight-to-video crime flick thanks to an uninspired, cliché-ridden script that suffers from the obvious last-minute substitution of black gangsters for Italian mobsters. Apparently working from the insultingly stereotypical premise that "chopsocky" films are best targeted to urban audiences (whose yearning for the bygone days of Jim Kelly and Rudy Ray Moore was presumably resurrected by the success of "Rush Hour"), the film's producers have concocted an unwieldy mess in which an ex-Hong Kong cop named Han Sing (Li), seeking answers in the death of his brother, comes to the United States, only to find himself caught between feuding crime syndicates, one headed by his crime boss father (Henry O), and the other by a rival black crime boss named Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo). Complicating matters is Han's accidental friendship with O'Day's estranged daughter Trish (recording artist Aaliyah), a relationship that eventually exposes their respective fathers' lieutenants (Russell Wong and Isaiah Washington) as traitors and co-conspirators.
   A variety of additional plot complications--including a plan to seize shorefront properties from black and Asian merchants for an NFL expansion stadium--are thrown in to seemingly raise the stakes and create the impression of a much better film that what has been wrought. All of which would have been well and fine if not for the expectations surrounding the film's touted star, Jet Li. Second only to Jackie Chan in his success as a martial arts film sensation, Li's stateside profile rose notably on the success of the most recent "Lethal Weapon" film, despite that film's blatant stereotyping and near-total bungling of key fight scenes.
   While Li again has the help of longtime associate and fight choreographer Corey Yuen (a childhood classmate of Jackie Chan's), the filmmakers this time have been wise enough to let Yuen have a freer hand with the scenes than he did in "Lethal Weapon 4." And while they still fall far short of Li's best Hong Kong work, they are dramatically superior to the kind of clumsiness usually imposed on American audiences. Unfortunately, under the uninspired direction of former cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, the story fizzles between fights. Precisely why the film was not turned over entirely to Yuen, a seasoned director in his own right with more than a dozen major Hong Kong hits to his credit, remains a mystery. Starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Henry O, Russell Wong, Isaiah Washington, D.B. Woodside and DMX. Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak. Written by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell. Produced by Joel Silver and Jim Van Wyck. A Warner Bros. release. Action. Running time: 114 min
Tags: Starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Henry O, Russell Wong, Isaiah Washington, D.B. Woodside and DMX. Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak. Written by Eric Bernt, John Jarrell, Produced by Joel Silver, Jim Van Wyck, Warner Bros, Action
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