Romeo Must Die - movie review (May 18, 2000)

Racial tensions - it's not just a black and white issue.

In San Francisco, the waterfront is controlled half by Chinese businesses and half by African-American businesses. Such proximity and competition fuels a rivalry, but a tentative truce to the war has been called because of a joint business venture involving both groups.  However, the truce is threatened when the younger son of one of the Chinese head families is found dead the morning after having caused some trouble at an African-American owned and frequented dance club.  Tensions escalate as retaliatory measures are taken by each side, but things really heat up when the dead man's older brother Han Sing (Jet Li) arrives from Hong Kong, bent on finding the person who killed his brother. He meets up with Trish O'Day (Aaliyah), the daughter of Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo), one of the waterfront business owners, but Trish hates her father because his business has criminal ties. Han's and Trish's budding friendship is frowned upon by both sides, but their alliance is strengthened when tragedy hits Trish, and she joins Han in his search for the truth behind the troubles that plague both sides.

When I first saw the trailer for this film, I knew I wanted to see it.  I thought it was a very interesting idea because it was a subject that hasn't been explored very much. Sure, racial differences and the problems that subsequently arise are addressed quite often in films - but most times, the focus is between black and white. Differences in culture, background and upbringing can result in difficulties between any two groups of people, so it was nice to see that the filmmakers had taken a slightly different angle.

The film shifts between the two worlds, as represented by the Sing family and the O'Days. Similar problems arise on both sides, and it's interesting to see how the differences in culture dictate how things are handled. The most interesting difference can be best seen in the climax of the film. There are actually two climaxes, one among the African-Americans and one among the Chinese, and the all-out weapon-laden war of the one side versus the person-to-person hand-to-hand combat of the other side shows very strikingly exactly how differently things are handled.

The film has a lot of light-hearted moments, including a running gag about Han Sing's name. The action sequences are terrific, but I was very disappointed that the martial arts sequences were edited. I'm told that Jet Li actually has a black belt, but none of the other Chinese actors in the film do, so all of the combat scenes are edited like any other action sequence instead of the great martial arts scenes in the films of Bruce Lee. In those films, the combat scenes were shot so that you could see both people in full shot, and the camera would just move to follow them. No editing. That's how you could tell they weren't faking it, that their skill was real and not simply created by the editing. It's too bad there aren't people around talented enough to be able to do that now. The film also contains two filmmaking devices in the fight scenes that I wasn't particularly fond of - special effects slow-motion enhancements and some funky x-ray vision shots. Great, you can do nifty things with today's technology. You don't need those kinds of artificial distractions if the fight sequences themselves are good enough.

Jet Li ("Lethal Weapon 4") is terrific as the vengeful brother come to find justice. I wasn't particulary impressed with Jet Li in "Lethal Weapon 4", but he shows a much greater acting range in this film. It's interesting to watch him go from being playful and friendly with his female co-star, to being impish and mischievious when bothered, to being deadly accurate when attacked. Aaliyah makes her big-screen acting debut in this film, and it sure bodes well for future projects. She's great as the prodigal daughter who is pulled back into a situation she's been trying to run away from. Aaliyah also contributes her singing talents to the soundtrack of the film. Delroy Lindo ("Get Shorty", "Broken Arrow", "Ransom", "The Cider House Rules" and the upcoming "Gone in 60 Seconds") is also terrific as the businessman and father who just wants the best for his family. Russell Wong ("The Joy Luck Club") is fine as the Sing's head henchman.

Even though there are a number of things in this film that I didn't like, the things I did like are enough to make me recommend it. But running out and trying to find it in a theatre isn't necessary. Just wait for it on video.


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