Romeo Must Die

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“Romeo Must Die” indeed. And the sooner the better.

In this loosest of all possible retellings of “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s the Sharks vs. the Jet — Jet Li, that is, the Chinese action hero who stars here as Han Sing (the alleged “Romeo” character) who avenges his brother’s death in the ongoing battle between the Asians and the African-Americans in Oakland, Calif.

Ch’u Sing (Henry O) is the head of the Asian family, with right-hand man Kai (Russell Wong) there to watch his back. Their counterparts in the black family are Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo) and Mac (Isaiah Washington). The two families are at war for reasons that may or may not relate to the fact that they’re both trying — supposedly together, but perhaps at one another’s expense — to get control of the waterfront area in order to build an NFL football stadium.

When Sing’s son Po turns up dead, his rebellious brother Han busts out of a Hong Kong prison (this is not made to seem terribly difficult, particularly if you know martial arts, which Han does and all of the prison guards don’t), comes to America (don’t ask how, because I don’t think the movie knows, either), and tries to track down Po’s killer.

The obvious culprits, duh, are the black family, except they’re saying it wasn’t them. Fearing retaliation, though, Isaak has his fattest, least-competent stooge, Maurice (Anthony Anderson, getting the film’s only laughs, which are few and far between), body-guard his daughter, Trish (Aaliyah).

Through a series of extraordinary coincidences, Trish and Han meet and manage not to fall in love, which is odd, considering the movie wants us to think of it as a martial-arts version of “Romeo and Juliet.” They get to be friends, sure, but not in love. Not anything worth dying over. And the whole “R&J” thing falls to pieces anyway, when the film ends in a manner completely removed from anything even remotely Shakespearean. (Han and Trish — Romeo and Juliet, in other words — don’t die, for example, which pretty much ruins whatever Shakespeare connection they were going for.)

For a martial-arts movie, there is surprisingly little martial arts in this movie. The film’s middle section seems to last for about 105 of its 110 minutes; half-way through it, I turned to my friend and said, “When is the movie going to start?”

The few fight sequences we do get are often (though not always) ruined by “Matrix”-style fakeness: Han breaks a lot of laws, but his most flagrant violation is in the area of gravity. We can accept a little bit of physics-defiance, but when the guy is practically hovering in the air, attached to invisible wires, spinning around and kicking people, it’s hard to be entertained. Martial-arts movies are cool because we’re impressed at the fighters’ skill; here, we’re just impressed that they managed to hide the wires.

The final fight, between Han and the real bad guy (no prizes for guessing who it is, though it’s hardly worth the mental energy necessary to even MAKE a guess), is well done and exciting, and there are other moments earlier in the film that get the blood pumping. Unfortunately, from a story perspective, the end is pretty disappointing and anti-climactic, since we’ve known forever who the bad guy was, and Han’s fighting him doesn’t really settle anything.

For as little sense as “Romeo Must Die” makes, its biggest crime is simply that it’s boring. Considering that excitement is usually ALL you expect from a movie like this, not having it delivered to you constitutes a serious breach of trust.

D+ (; R, moderately heavy profanity, abundant martial-arts violence, some other bloodiness and gunfire, brief partial nudity, brief scene of two women kissing..)

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