Romeo Must Die features a limber Hong Kong action star and all the guns expected from an American action movie, and sets everything to a hip-hop beat. With such a calculatedly cool combination of elements, it shouldn't be a surprise that it fails miserably. Martial-arts giant Jet Li made his American debut in Lethal Weapon 4, his presence bringing a bit of gravity to an otherwise wafer-thin franchise installment. Li has considerably more difficulty in his first American starring role, having apparently left his charisma elsewhere. Playing the son of an Oakland-based Chinese crime lord, Li escapes from a Hong Kong prison to avenge the murder of his brother, the apparent result of tensions between his family and a black crime syndicate headed by Delroy Lindo. Li's chaste, chemistry-free friendship with Lindo's daughter (Aaliyah) both complicates the situation and helps explain, but only in part, the film's cryptic title. But even with a recognizable story template to follow, Romeo Must Die has little sense of direction. So many scenes deal with the convoluted, yet thoroughly familiar, plot—not trusting Shakespeare, the script brings in a war over valuable dockside property—that the action seems like an afterthought. It's a fatal misplacement of priorities, but, then, everything about Romeo feels off. Given only a handful of ass-kickings to perform, Li makes his discomfort apparent, a timid Aaliyah performs as if someone just offscreen is threatening to douse her with water, and Lindo understandably appears embarrassed. (A deceptively third-billed DMX at least has the good sense to get in and out of the movie as quickly as possible.) Even the action scenes, greedily distributed over the course of two hours and so obviously enhanced by computers as to qualify as a stylistic choice, make no impact. The inauspicious directorial debut of veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, Romeo Must Die attempts to provide something for everyone, but will likely end up satisfying no one.
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