Hong Kong feet and fists mix it up with gangsta artillery in “Romeo Must Die, ” a style-drenched, kick-butt, music-fueled, Kung hop actioner that assiduously devotes itself to devising the most dazzling and inventive martial arts sequences it can muster. In this it succeeds absolutely, so while the film’s considerable downtime provides plenty of opportunity to notice that Jet Li, in his first English-lingo starring vehicle, scarcely ever speaks a line that is more than one sentence long, Joel Silver’s new production has been very shrewdly calibrated to attract Asian action addicts, hip-hop fans and general audiences looking for that “Matrix” edge. Result looks to put the Warner Bros. release into heavy B.O. rotation, with international and eventual video/DVD prospects looming very large.
Drawing more upon the familiar plotting patterns of Hong Kong crime dramas than upon anything recognizably Shakespearean, the patchwork story simmers in the competition, duplicity, betrayal and revenge between two families —black and Chinese — caught on the fulcrum between their long-standing underworld habits and their desire to go legit. As it happens, each clan is more afflicted by internal threats than it is by its official rival, and both are egged on by an uber-villain, in this case a Jewish entrepreneur willing to go to any lengths to conclude a deal for a new NFL stadium and franchise.
Although the waterfront warfare angle is nothing new, it’s sufficient to support the film’s raison d’etre, which is to showcase the martial arts skills of longtime Hong Kong star Jet Li in a very hip and effects-enhanced context.
Based on the success Li enjoyed in his U.S. debut, “Lethal Weapon 4,” producer Silver had an existing script tailored to Li’s specifications in a way that plays perfectly to the performer’s strengths and minimizes his liabilities. Short (especially compared with his towering co-stars here), unassuming and sort of scruffy looking, Li has never been a particularly charismatic figure, and it remains to be seen how far he can go in American films. But he’s great in the combat scenes, and he can count himself very fortunate to have been so carefully groomed by a top producer, almost in the way that stars were in the old studio days.
Fateful chain of events kicks off when Po Sing, the uppity, rude son of Chinese crime lord Ch’u Sing (Henry O), is found lynched after having sparked a fracas at an Oakland hip-hop club. Rival underworld boss Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo), who owns most of the East Bay shoreline that Ch’u Sing doesn’t, swears to the old man that no one in his organization was responsible, and before Ch’u Sing can determine who killed his son, who should appear on the scene but his other son, Han Sing (Li), a former Hong Kong cop who went to prison so that his father and brother could escape and start a new life in the U.S.
Han’s escape from prison reps one of the pic’s action highlights. Strung upside down inside a “beating room” cell, Han manages to fling and contort himself around so as to immobilize several guards, a bit of stupendous physicality with a topper that will provoke collective cries of “Awesome!”: Upon delivering a decisive kick, Han’s victim is suddenly seen in vivid X-ray, explicitly showing the devastating effect of the hit. This gambit is repeated twice more, to especially rousing effect in the one-and-one combat finale.
While just getting his feet wet in the Bay Area, Han, momentarily at the wheel of a taxi, coincidentally meets Trish O’Day (hip-hop star Aaliyah in a sprightly turn), the very self-possessed daughter of Isaak who runs a trendy clothing store but unwillingly has just been put under the protection of one of her father’s bodyguards, the massive, comically bumbling Maurice (Anthony Anderson).
Developing a cutely innocent bond rather than anything deeply Romeo-and-Julietish, the two run the risky gauntlet between the two warring factions overseen by their respective fathers while trying to figure out who killed Po and, soon after, Trish’s kid brother Colin (DB Woodside).
Despite the suspicion engendered by their mutual loss of sons, the two patriarchs are actually at pains to get along since they are warily allied with sinister developer Vincent Roth (Eduardo Ballerini) in gobbling up the few remaining two-bit landowners along the bay to facilitate the construction of a new football stadium. Enforcing their bosses’ will when some deed-holders prove too independent are two ice-cold killers, Mac (Isaiah Washington) and Kai (Russell Wong, far more camera-friendly than Li), the latter of whom appears to be at least Han’s equal with his hands and feet.
Just getting by with his one-liners in English dialogue scenes (Han’s three big dramatic showdowns with his father are conducted in subtitled Cantonese), Li comes into his own in the martial arts sequences, which of course are contrived so as to mostly eliminate guns from the equation. Two interludes in which he overcomes heavy odds to dress down (in one case, literally) Mac and Maurice’s crew — once in a cramped passageway and another time on a football field — are pretty funny in their calculated showmanship.
More genuinely exciting is a car-and-motorcycle chase that concludes with Han , who will not lay a hand on a woman, taking on a tough femme adversary (Li’s very hot “Black Mask” co-star, Francoise Yip — misspelled in the credits as “Francois”) by using a cooperative Trish as an effective human weapon. Inevitable showdown between Han and Kai is potent, although follow-up, in which arriving police completely ignore the departing Han and Trish, is ludicrous.
Vet lenser Andrzej Bartkowiak, who worked with Li on “Lethal Weapon 4,” invests his directorial debut with muscular energy and an appropriate dramatic impatience; the film never stops moving, and it’s always a pleasure to watch. Beginning with a Warner Bros. logo that is colored by dark clouds rather than the usual fluffy white, followed by the arresting front credits, pic has a sleek , neo-noirish look that’s complimented, and enhanced for contempo audiences, by a throbbing hip-hop song score that rarely goes away; album with 15 new tracks, including one collaboration between Aaliyah and featured player DMX, is certain to be big.
Martial arts ace Corey Yuen, a frequent Li cohort, designed the fab combat scenes, which feature extensive wire work and enhancing effects from Manex Visual Effects, which handled “The Matrix.” Stunt coordinator/second unit director Conrad Palmisano also deserves kudos. Bay Area locations were mostly replicated in Vancouver.