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Romeo Must Die is the second Hollywood production that Jet Li has appeared in, but his involvement in films goes way back to 1979 where he has made more than 30 movies in Asia.  So trying to choose the best movie to associate yourself with Jet Li first, Romeo Must Die is probably the worst one of them all - which is not to say that his performance here is rotten.  In fact, Jet Li's acting probably outshines all other thespians in this flick (most of which he hardly meets face to face anyway) except for his co-star Aaliyah who virtually dictates the movie's events to him.  Jet Li's screentime is ultimately much less than that seen by his supporting cast, with his role almost reduced to that of a tool for revenge.  Also, the title suggests that this movie is based on the all-famous Shakespearean fable Romeo And Juliet ... yeah, like the Gulf War was based on freedom and democracy.

I am quite the fan of Hong Kong action flicks, my love for them started well before Rumble In The Bronx made an international star out of Jackie Chan.  However, I haven't quite been able to get into Jet Li in the same capacity because much of his recent work is based on a technique known as "Wire-Fu" - this is a method where the actor is strapped into a cable-harness and is employed (sometimes to extremes) to give them an extra boost in order to reach previously impossible heights and moves such as that seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  If used as an "aid to the action" then it's okay, but if it's exploited and ultimately declared as being "real-life" then this goes way beyond our ability to suspend any disbelief of the action proper.  Also, the reason I am not a fan of this system is that I have to hold my breath everytime someone jumps and I need to wait until they reach the ground again before I can exhale - at least I can swim underwater for a long time now :-).

Romeo Must Die
If it's action you want in Romeo Must Die, then you'll have to be extremely patient.  My debut viewing had me thinking that the story was quite interesting and complex, however repeated screenings made me realise that after you knew the plot back to front you were just aching for the action to kick in.  So I was very disappointed with any lasting appeal to watch this movie ever again.  All up I'd say there's only 15 minutes worth of action in what is close to a 2 hour viewing period ... that's only about 10%!  Also, Jet Li turned down the title role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to do this movie instead, which some sources claim was because of a promise to his wife not to work while she was pregnant with their second child.

The trouble with this flick is that any potential to expand upon the hardcore aspects of gang violence is not looked into, especially considering the overly ambitious screenplay.  Indeed, there isn't even a narrative of two lovers struggling against opposing upbringings that would bear any relation to its apparent origins in Romeo And Juliet.  Instead, the main focus seems to belong to the overdrawn melodramatic survey of the black gangsters' activities with little reference to their chinese rivals.  In the end, this movie ends up looking like a very one-sided affair just to appeal to the hip-hop teenage (black) culture ... it really has very little to do with the main star's potential as an actor and stunt performer extraordinaire.  Jet Li's next effort, Kiss Of The Dragon, goes some way into restoring his reputation in this.

Movie
Set in contemporary California at Oakland's prominent bay waterfront (which looks suspiciously like Vancouver, Canada :-) ... the story begins inside a nightclub run by a black gang who currently don't take too kindly to anyone but themselves enjoying its facilities.  This is because there is a turf war on at the moment and the presence of a rebel chinese crimelord's son, Po Sing, doesn't go down too well with the owners.  His minder manages to track him down to the club just before he comes to any harm (but not after they teach the blacks a thing or two about Kung Fu), however he is found dead the morning after in what appears to be a revenge attack.

News of this tragedy reaches his father, Ch'u Sing (Henry O), at his stateside villa, and also to former Hong Kong policeman Han Sing (Jet Li) who now resides in a top security prison after he took the fall for his family's criminal dealings.  After hearing about his brother's untimely demise, he loses control in the prison eatery and is then placed into a secure block for "re-education" by the prison guards ... however it's the officers that get a lesson in not letting your guard down in front of an upside-down shackled prisoner.

After his improbable escape, he flies to America to reacquaint himself with his family and to seek vengeance for his brother's death.  Along the way he develops a kinship with Trish O'Day (Aaliyah) who he later discovers is the daughter of his father's rival, Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo), in which her own brother ultimately meets the same fate as that of Han Ling's.  Together they seek to uncover the truth and soon learn that not everything is as it first seems.

Video
Why is it that the bad movies seem to get the best transfers?  There's not much to fault here, but I'm going to try anyhow.  For the most part, everything is spot on - the colours are fully saturated (with the nightclub scenes especially striking) and the black levels are very deep with great shadow detail even in the nighttime.

Romeo Must Die
Here come the flaws ... as I said before most of the transfer is faultless, however there are some sequences which stop this from getting a perfect score.  This movie was filmed in Canada where the weather is nearly always cloudy and drab, so the need to boost the exposure when filming was paramount in maintaining a consistently bright image.  This results in a slight increase in grain throughout the daytime sequences when we normally wouldn't see it with normal lighting conditions - this is especially prevelant in images such as the sky and objects with simple colours and hues.  However, the nighttime scenes show very little or no grain at all.

It's amazing to discover that the "football sequences" were indeed filmed in very overcast conditions, yet look as though they took place in a perfectly sunny day.  You can tell the stark contrast between what you see in the film itself to the footage in the documentary showing the same takes.  This method of enhancement presents an unavoidable effect where the background image detail becomes washed out as they attempt to enhance the desired foreground sections.  Usually I wouldn't notice this since I'm concentrating on the action, but quite often I'll find that by looking over the character's shoulder the imaging does reveal a lack of perceptibility in places.

Audio
Why is it that the bad movies seem to ... oh, right.  Both the English and dubbed Italian 5.1 sound mixes are equally impressive, a little too impressive actually.  Most of this movie is dialogue driven, which is easily decipherable for pretty much the entire running time.  Of course when the action kicks in there isn't much worth talking about per se and this is where you can really impress your friends.

The first thing you'll notice is the amount of sub-woofer activity in both the stuntwork and music - it's liberally used throughout yet is very tight and not boomy.  There is a great spacial imaging present throughout all the speakers which really involves you in the action, with wonderful utilisation of split rear-channels that helps to give the impression of direction and localisation immensely.  Given the "unrealistic realism" portrayed on-screen the sound effects are all way over-the-top and very artificial, but this is purely meant for fun.  And so forceful is the mix that the "midnight mode" of your Dolby Digital home theatre system does little to quench the fire.  First-rate.

Extras
Quite a feast here, in fact you'll probably be getting hungry once you finally reach the end of them all.  The menu system isn't the easiest to use since nearly everything seems to be hidden within further sub-menus that really don't need to be there.  Apart from this unwieldy interface, you will find a great deal of supplemental material that rivals the many other so-called Special Editions.  Most of this stuff goes into the complexities of the stunt sequences where you can start to appreciate what it takes to bring them onto the silver screen (what little there are of them :-).

- HBO First-Look Special: Making Romeo Must Die - An overview of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and stuntwork sequence techniques, which provides a good insight through the eyes of the cast & crew.  You can find this in the first page of the Special Features section, the rest of the extras are found in another sub-section called Fight Zone (some of which have nothing to do with fighting) ...

- Trailers and Music Videos - Both the domestic and international theatrical trailers are present here, as well as the music videos by Aaliyah of "Come Back In One Piece" (featuring DMX) and "Try Again", plus an extra making-of for the latter.

- Short Documentaries - There are 8 of them here, namely "Stairway Dance"; Kung Fu Football"; "A Benz, a Bike, a Babe and Some Bad-Ass Kung Fu"; "The Hose"; "Master On Fire"; "Jet Li is 'Han'"; "Aaliyah is 'Trish'" and "Anthony Anderson is 'Maurice' aka 'Moron'" (read below for my comment on him, too).

- Featurettes - There are an extra 4 investigative productions which look into everything else that is not Kung Fu related.  They include "Inside The Visual Effects Process", "Diary of a (Legal) Mad Bomber", "Anatomy of a Stunt" (the apartment complex jump sequence) and "The Sound Stage".

By the way, is it me or do some actors feel the need to hide their insecurities by boasting about their (in)abilities in movies?  I ask this because whenever I see the actor Anthony Anderson being interviewed on-set (which is also repeated in his next movie / DVD, Exit Wounds) he always claims that he was hired because he could "kick butt big-time" ... however when I see him in these movies he's always the one getting his posterior rearranged, not the other way around.  Some of you may be thinking "picky picky", but after having reviewed this DVD thoroughly I've grown weary of his smartarsed comments already - so if this is his idea of humour I'm not in the least bit amused by it.  His role in both movies is nothing more than alleged comic-relief, so his disappearance would actually improve proceedings quite a bit.

Romeo Must Die
Summary
This movie is really only for lovers of hip-hop music and (to a much lesser extent) die-hard Jet Li fans.  So it would pay to rent this DVD first, watch it a couple of times and then decide whether it will eventually become a keeper.  The extras go some way into rounding out the package by explaining all the hard work that went into the action choreography.  But when you realize that it took more time to film the 15 minutes worth of stunts than it did to shoot the 90+ minutes of dialogue, chances are that you'll be feeling very left out of the equation.  Try before you buy.

Heck, I can't resist (and you're gonna hate me for it too) ... here's the rundown of the stunt sequences and their running times :-  Nightclub: 1.00m.  Prison: 0.30m.  Staircase: 1.15m.  Friendly Fight: 0.20m.  Football: 2.30m.  Motorcycles: 2.50m.  Warehouse: 3.15m.  Final Fire Fight: 3.20m.  Incendental Explosions & Gunplay: 2.00m.  TOTAL: 17.00m (for a 2 hour movie).  Another point to make is that the R2 UK release contains some 30 seconds of cut footage to get a '15' rating, but my research leads me to believe that our R4 product contains the uncut version.

As some people out there already know, Aaliyah who stars in this movie was recently killed in a plane crash after having filmed a music video in the tropics (it was alleged that the plane itself was overloaded with equipment and could not maintain altitude).  She had completed filming for (and will be seen in) the upcoming sequel to Interview With A Vampire entitled Queen Of The Damned ... and she had also shot a few scenes for the The Matrix 2 & 3 (in which she will now be replaced).  From what little I've seen and heard of her she was a warm and genuine person and she will be greatly missed by her fans, friends and family.  R.I.P. Aaliyah.


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