The following review will be split into two different sections. One positive and one negative. The negative will feature my thoughts as "that guy who writes kung fu movie articles for Shovel" and the positive will be my comments as "that guy who writes about an apparently random selection of movies for Boston’s Weekly Dig." I hope this makes sense…
First up, the Shovel comment
This is pretty much just a rant.
I typically hate Hollywood action movies (biggest exception… Die Hard… ) and when a Hollywood actioner just happens to feature my favorite kung fu movie heavyweight, Jet Li, my capacity for annoyance is suddenly without bounds. Romeo Must Die fits the preceding description and while it didn’t really test any limits, I did experience periods of confusion, exasperation and incredulity and for that, I am a little sad today.
Why you ask? Well, Hollywood sucks ass when it comes to shooting martial arts scenes and it seems like any valuable lessons learned by the folks over at Silver Pictures during the production of The Matrix were lost when it came time to shoot this movie. Full of many of the cardinal sins of kung fu film making and adding new twists on old foibles this film went for a hybrid of Hong Kong kung fu and American action and came away with something that just doesn’t quite work. Want examples? How about shaky-cam fueled closeups during fight scenes? It’s true. Toss in some really claustrophobic shots and you’ve got a good sense of the style at work here. Jet Li is one of the five greatest screen fighters ever and while he’s got great screen presence, most folks are there at least partially to watch the man perform, I.E., kick ass with style . Well, watching him from the chest up with the camera bouncing around like a crack addicted Chihuahua doesn’t really allow the viewer to see ANYTHING THAT HE’S DOING. It overpowers the movements and turns it into a swirling, Michael Bay influenced mess. I guess that flies with net addicted ADD diagnosed teenagers with the attention span of a goldfish, but for someone schooled on the show-all Hong Kong style that’s a real pain in the ass.
I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s a punch and the specific movement is done with the hands. The action as a whole really takes the WHOLE BODY to perform. That’s a basic idea in the martial arts and it certainly applies to screen fighting. Also keep in mind the apparently mystifying concept that the action has to performed on another individual. To really see the beauty of a well choreographed scene and to experience the grace and power of the movements you’ve got to see the whole picture which means seeing enough of both combatants to actually follow what’s going on. Why is this such a difficult concept for Hollywood filmmakers to understand?
You don’t frame Fred Astaire, alone from the neck up and call it a dance number, you show Fred AND Ginger(or a coat rack for that matter) hoofing it up from head to toe and then you get the magic…
Want more? Well, unfortunately I’ve got it ready. Ever see Drunken Master II? Remember the finale of that one? It’s about 15 minutes long and features some of the most incredible choreography you’ve ever seen. Keep the length of that fight in mind and then chew on this for a moment… all 8 fights in this film barely beat the running length of that one scene. Each and every fight in this film, including the big "finale", are stunted little bits of action, none lasting more than a few minutes. Francois Yip’s appearance, touted as something to look out for in the release information, probably lasts for less than a minute. Aaliyah, (with some My Father is a Hero style help from Jet Li) punches her, kicks her and then kicks her again and *poof* she’s dead…
They call that a fight?
As a side note, the only thing shorter than the fights in this one is the length of DMX’s "featured" performance. He’s got about fifth of a second of screen time split over two scenes. From what I saw he’s actually not that bad, although, during the first of his two scenes I barely registered his presence. I was still a little distracted by the totally out- of- left- field opening scene. Running longer than any of the fights, it features a little HOT Network style bump and grind action between two women, capped off with a little tongue and the surprise appearance of a nipple.
Nipple. Now that’s a funny word.
Anyway, add to the above a continuation of the sorriest trend in American cinema, the rapid-fire "music video" style of editing*, and the inclusion of somewhat distracting CGI effects and you’ll start to get a full sense of the film’s problems in the fight department.
Here come the "Dig" comments. These, while shorter, recommend that you see the film. Ain’t life funny?
With the exception of the above giant-sized gripe about the fights I have to say I enjoyed my trip to the theater last night. As anyone who’s seen Fong Sai Yuk (for example…) can attest that there’s certainly more to Jet Li than just his ability to kick ass and Romeo Must Die might just be the best showcase of his comedic/acting talents since that gem . His funny, assured performance in this film will almost certainly validate him in the eyes of the Hollywood decision makers and gain him even more of a following here in the States. Deftly mixing some really nice comic touches, a little touch of humanity and his natural screen presence, Li in some ways reinvents himself with this role and does so wonderfully. Almost completing shedding his trademark stoic persona (first introduced in his true breakthrough role, that of Wong Fei-Hung in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China), Li capitalizes on the possibilities of this new, untainted- by- preconceptions American market by bringing his personality to the forefront and allowing his natural charm to shine through.
Li’s chemistry with co-star Aaliyah also helps matters. The two worked well together, although I am a little disappointed the industry hasn’t matured enough to allow for an interracial kiss between a Chinese guy and a black woman…
Isn’t Romeo and Juliet supposed to be a love story?
Anyway, Aaliyah was surprisingly good in this, her first film role. As an actress, she’s natural, poised and, much like Li, the camera eats her up. A fine debut and it didn’t rely on her talents as a singer (see Houston, Whitney; The Bodyguard), which is a definite plus. The only hint of her other career was provided in a clever little scene in which Aaliyah lip syncs one of her own songs as it’s played in a nightclub. A neat take on the Elvis scenario.**
The rest of the cast is also pretty good. Delroy Lindo, Russell Wong and Anthony Anderson all deserve mentions. Particularly Anderson, whose oafish antics as Maurice (AKA "Moron") went over pretty well with the crowd at the screening I attended and kept me personally from dwelling on the less than stellar nature of the fight scenes. A helpful function I assure you.
All in all, this is a pretty good package and, to be honest, anyone not weaned the real deal will probably eat the fight scenes up (which scares me to no end, but I’ll save that for another time.). In the final count, Romeo Must Die is funny, moved quick enough to make me forget the 110 minute running time and provided enough of an emotional kick in the end to make the whole thing worthwhile. It’s not perfect and it’s not much of a martial arts movie, but it is a pretty good plain old movie. Check it out.
* I picture the typical Hollywood editing room looking a little something like this…. Imagine two freaked out 40- something white guys snorting coke and fondling copies of Natural Born Killers, holed up in front of an Avid like the screwy potheads in Reefer Madness, spasmodically screaming "faster, faster! More f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-fucking edits!!!! Faster!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
This article was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in March 2000.