Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Washington, Russell Wong
It has been only four years since Leonardo DiCaprio
and Claire Danes
did their doomed-teen thing in a punked-out William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, but the Bard's star-crossed lovers have risen once more from the grave for this updated martial-arts version of the classic play. Romeo Must Die proves yet again just how infinitely adaptable Shakespeare can be, even when none of his actual text is used.
This limb-crushing action thriller transfers the young lovers from old Verona to contemporary Oakland, dumping them into the trenches of gang warfare. West Side Story West Coast style? Sort of, but minus the songs and tragic ending. Romeo, called Han here, is played by Jet Li, the Hong Kong action star who so impressively whomped Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 4. In Romeo he's the good-guy son of an evil Asian crime lord. Dad (Henry O) is battling for turf with an African-American underworld boss (Lindo), whose smart-mouthed daughter (singer Aaliyah) soon becomes the object of Li's affection. Before the two young lovers can find happiness pursuing legitimate careers (he's a cop, she runs a boutique), they must help settle the differences between their fathers.
The movie is tailor-made to showcase Li's prodigious physical skills while masking his difficulty speaking English. The action scenes (many shot in slow motion so that one can appreciate every kick and chop) have a jolting grace and graphic immediacy that will satisfy even the most demanding fans. Li is particularly dazzling when he overpowers five guards during a prison break and, in a later scene, converts a humble fire hose into a deadly whip. Top acting honors, however, go to Lindo, as a complicated hood who longs to go straight, and to Washington, who portrays Lindo's plotting assistant, a devious role that's closer to Iago in Othello than to anyone in Romeo and Juliet. (R)
Bottom Line: Long on action, short on poetry