Chances are , if you’ve ever read this column before you’ve seen mention of Romeo Must Die, Jet Li’s first new film in over a year and a half. For you stat geeks, this article will be the 6th time I’ve said something about this impending release from Warner Bros./Silver Pictures.
Let’s just say I’m just happy the film is finally coming out.
It used to be you could expect a new film from Li every few months. In fact, during a two year span in 93-94 he released eight films and the role call from that period includes much of his greatest work: Fong Sai Yuk, Fong Sai Yuk II, Last Hero in China, Kung Fu Cult Master, Tai Chi Master, New Legend of Shaolin, Bodyguard from Beijing and Fist of Legend.
That was in Hong Kong however and the furiously creative pace over there is certainly different than it is in Li’s new home, Hollywood. A full-time resident of LA now, Li has certainly made the transition to the Hollywood scheme of things pretty quickly, taking something like a year and a half to actually get this film made. It’s been so long in fact just the FIRST page of the Jet Lee (Li) Home Page’s Romeo Must Die preview section now takes something like a minute to download in it’s entirety and weighs in at 235k. That’s just the first page…. The archive pages adds another 225k and has dated entries as far back as 2/28/99. That’s a third of the way up the page, by the way. There are something like 15 or 20 news items left undated below that.
It really has been a while….
Well, after that marathon of anticipation, the time is finally upon us. On March 22 (a Wednesday…), Romeo Must Die opens in theaters and we’ll finally get to see Jet Li as the hero in an American feature. For some folks, it’ll be their first introduction to Li as a leading man, which is amazing considering the work he did in Hong Kong. For those of you out of the loop, during his time in Hong Kong Li made a habit of playing legendary figures from Chinese history and folklore, including heavy duty heroes like Hung Hei-Kwun, Fong Sai-Yuk and, of course, Wong Fei-Hung. Classic heroes.
For this one, Li has had to step it down a notch, playing a modern day action movie stereotype, an ex-cop named Han Sing. Han, in case you’re slow on the uptake or store Shakespeare and the Shaw Bros. in entirely different sectors of your brain, is the titular "Romeo" in this hip-hop flavored, kung fu powered retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story.
In case you were wondering (and I’m sure you are), the "Juliet" role is played by Aaliyah. Here’s the extent of my Aaliyah knowledge; she’s a lovely young lady, she’s a singer who’s sold a gazillion records, Romeo Must Die is her first film acting experience (yipes!) and she’s got four songs on the soundtrack (including one with co-star DMX) which, I guess, means it will sell 500 billion copies.
Good for her.
As for the movie itself, while I don’t yet trust American filmmakers to not fuck things up when it comes to martial arts movies (as much as I liked The Matrix, even that smash hit doesn’t wipe away the stench of Hollywood’s previous efforts) it’s got enough of a pedigree to get me interested.
At the top there’s Jet Li himself. In case I haven’t let it show, this guy sits at the top of my personal list. No one in the world can compare to Jet’s unique mixture of wu-shu skill, screen presence and acting ability. From the trend-setting Once Upon a Time in China to the genre fan favorite Fist of Legend, his work in the 90s practically defined the martial arts movie during one of the genre’s highest periods of creativity.
Also on board and certainly playing for the good guys is Martial Arts Supervisor Corey Yuen. Before serving as Jet Li’s partner in crime here in the States (he did the fights in Lethal Weapon 4), Yuen put together one of the strongest résumés in the circle. From his early choreography work on classics like Ng See-Yuen’s Invincible Armor to his later, epic work as director on genre defining films like Fong Sai Yuk, Yuen has consistently provided some of the most creative, exciting work in the business. Whether or not his certain-to- be- solid work on the fights in the film survives the shooting/ editing process ) remains to be seen (i.e.,whther or not the film ends up looking like a goddamned music video/ Michael Bay jitterfest), but is name in the credits certainly inspires hope.
As a side note, Yuen recently took it up a notch and served as Second Unit Director on the upcoming X-Men movie. For those of you who never lived with a film student, the Second Unit Director is the person responsible for (among other things) directing the action scenes. As bad as that film looks to be (every behind-the-scenes element I’ve seen looks laughable), Yuen working a high profile position on that bloated film would seem to set the stage for him planting himself where he rightfully belongs, in the director’s chair. If that were to happen it might signal the beginning of the end for the frightful trend of putting hacks with no genre history/ sensibility behind the camera on a martial arts movie (see Ratner, Brett; Rush Hour) and to that I’d say "hallelujah!"
Some more notes before I round this up…
Delroy Lindo also makes an appearance. If you’re unfamiliar with his work (shame on you!) check out the most underrated American film of the decade, Spike Lee’s Clockers, for an example of what he’s capable of in front of the camera.
Russell Wong plays the ultimate villain in this one, squaring off against Li in the middle of a burning warehouse in the finale.
The visual effects were provided by Manex, the same folks responsible for the eye candy in The Matrix. I don’t imagine there’s much room for giant robots or huge Geoff Darrow designed incubators in this urban action piece, but at least we know they know what they’re doing.
There are eight fights (cool), including one that sounds reminiscent of the excellent finale of the early Li/ Tsui Hark collaboration, The Master. In this one, Li fights five guys while hanging upside down by one foot. My kind of scene…
Well, this column’s full disclosure policy means I have to admit the following : I’ve just reached the point where I’m sick of writing about this movie. It’s just been so damned long I can’t stand it any more, so that’s it, I’m hitting "save" and getting the hell out of here.
All that’s left for me now is to finally see the film and review the thing.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t suck.
This article was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digboston) in March of 2000.