No doubt the most aggressively modern, assertively trendy adaptations of Shakespeare ever filmed, this overwhelmingly of-the-moment version of one of literature’s most enduring tragic love stories can serve as a litmus test for any viewer’s willingness to accept extreme stylistic attitudinizing as a substitute for the virtues of traditional storytelling; anyone unwilling to accept Mercutio as a black disco diva in drag had best stay away. Anything but dull, and ultimately saved by the manifestly indestructible qualities of the 400 -year-old play, this is decidedly as much Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” as much as it is William Shakespeare’s, despite the eponymous possessive credit the Bard receives. Teenage girls will rep the most responsive audience for this drastically flawed but freshly conceived picture, giving it a solid base for some initial B.O. How much further its appeal extends will determine the full measure of its domestic commercial success, although it may score more strongly overseas, where its conceptual strengths may more easily prevail over its linguistic and dramatic shortcomings.
Much as he reconceived “La Boheme” pre-“Rent” for the 1950s in a celebrated 1990 Australia opera production, Luhrmann transports the Montagues and Capulets to Verona Beach and a violent contemporary world dominated by designer guns, customized cars and incessant music. Result is simultaneously striking and silly , boldly elaborated and unconvincing, imaginative and misguided. Although arresting in spots, it falls far short of bringing out the full values of the play, and doesn’t approach the emotional resonance of Franco Zeffirelli’s immensely popular 1968 screen version.
The demise of the title characters is announced upfront in a TV news report, with the anchor speaking in iambic pentameter. Opening reel is an affected imitation of a John Woo film out of Sergio Leone, with rapid-fire cutting, dizzying zooms and speeded-up action hyping the confrontation of rival gang members, resulting in a conflagration at a gas station.
To clarify the narrative in the simplest possible terms, Luhrmann pastes labels all over the screen to identify the members of the opposing clans. The Capulets, most prominently represented by headed by tyrannical patriarch Fulgencio (Paul Sorvino) and hot-blooded gangster Tybalt (John Leguizamo), are generically Latino, while the Montagues, including big boss Ted (Brian Dennehy) and his rebel son Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), are old-style ruling class whites, although this is not overtly a racially inspired rendition a la “West Side Story.”
Luhrmann’s biggest set piece is the Capulets’ conciliatory masquerade ball, at which Romeo’s best buddy Mercutio (Harold Perrineau, grown considerably since “Smoke”) shows up in a white wig and silver spangled miniskirt to sing a musical number on the stairway. But this doesn’t bring the picture alive nearly as much as does Claire Danes, whose Juliet, from the moment she appears, is the picture of youthful purity, spontaneity and romantic readiness. Her scenes, both with and apart from Romeo, also stand as a welcome relief from the unrelenting cacophony of the rest of the picture, and it is a measure of the director’s intent to upend conventional readings of Shakespeare that he stages most of the famous balcony scene in a swimming pool.
In a literally edge-of-the-world beach sequence, Juliet’s enraged cousin Tybalt comes looking for Romeo but kills Mercutio instead, whereupon Romeo turns his world upside down by taking revenge upon Tybalt. Perhaps the greatest anachronism in modern terms is Romeo’s subsequent “banishment” from Verona Beach , instead of being faced with a murder charge.
This is the very rare Shakespeare film not dominated by British-trained theater actors only Pete Postlethwaite, as Father Laurence, and Miriam Margolyes , as the Nurse, qualify on this count so the mostly young Stateside thesps are not put in the position of being shown up by them. However, their relative awkwardness with the language is spotlighted by Danes, who has somehow found a way to both enunciate the Shakespearean lingo and make its meanings lucid and accessible.
Playing Romeo as a James Deanish brooder, DiCaprio brings youthful energy to the role but neither seems like his parents’ son nor much like one of the gang he runs with. He gets his speeches out without undue embarrassment but, unlike with Danes, they don’t seem second-nature to him.
This is even more true with many of the young supporting players, who have been encouraged to shout while hurling insults and threats and brandishing guns in almost choreographed fashion. Among the adults, Sorvino is over the top when bullying his daughter to marry fashion-plate Paris (Paul Rudd), while Margolyes scores the film’s main comic points in the virtually fool-proof part of Juliet’s nurse.
But it is the transposition of the story to an exotic contempo setting that is both the film’s most striking and most unmanageable component. Even when the wild stylings, obvious notions and shrill performances don’t work, which is often, the sheer confidence of Luhrmann’s audacious conceptions makes an undeniable impression. As irritating and glib as some of it may be, there is indisputably a strong vision here that has been worked out in considerable detail.
Despite the Miami-like ambiance, pic was largely shot in Mexico City, with additional locations in Veracruz. Huge contributions have been made by production designer Catherine Martin, costume designer Kym Barrett, lenser Donald M. McAlpine, editor Jill Bilcock and composers Craig Armstrong, Marius de Vries and Nellee Hooper, resulting in a riot of color and music.