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Review: A lifeless 'Romeo Must Die'

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By Reviewer Paul Tatara

April 4, 2000
Web posted at: 12:08 p.m. EST (1608 GMT)

(CNN) -- "Romeo Must Die" is another ridiculous attempt by producer Joel Silver to turn Hong Kong action star Jet Li into a marketable American commodity. If that discounts Li's standing as a card-carrying human being, so be it.

Silver's actors are commodities in the most ignoble sense of the word. He couldn't care less if his films communicate real ideas to sharp-witted movie goers, or even if his stories have any narrative momentum. Instead, he churns out insincere products geared toward predetermined markets that enable him to buy things with the money that he earns from the fast-moving footage.

Theatrical preview for "Romeo Must Die"
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Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer, whose numerous credits include "Top Gun" (1986) and "Armageddon," (1998) are the very rich Einsteins of Hollywood inanity. They've done as much as anybody in the industry to turn action movie production into an equation, a series of chowder-headed plug-ins designed to set hearts palpitating. There have always been producers whose only goal is to rake in a dumb buck, and there always will be. Silver and Bruckheimer's movies, however, are the high-tech nadir of that approach. It's embarrassing to think how many truly gifted technicians waste their talents making them.

Kung foolery

"Romeo Must Die" isn't the worst picture in the Silver oeuvre, and that's as close to a compliment as you can pay it.

Li jumps higher than Michael Jordan can after 12 cups of coffee, but he's not an actor and doesn't even display kung fu thespian Jackie Chan's gosh-darn-it sense of humor. His first appearance in the United States was in Silver's "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998). The less said about that monstrosity, the better, but at least it had some star power and was peppered with enough explosions to keep non-discerning audience members glued to the screen.

Unfortunately, the most destructive thing about "Romeo Must Die" is the damage that it does to your frontal lobe. It doesn't even pay off in sheer adrenaline.

Spar-crossed lovers

The movie's trailer and title suggest that this is a hip-hop/kung fu variation on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and it does contain the basic elements of that doomed lovers' tale. But director Andrzej Bartkowiak and screenwriter Eric Bernt barely deliver the promised romance between Li and R&B singer-turned-actress Aaliyah (pronounced ah-lee-yah).

The plot is established after a couple of action-packed set pieces, then you sit there watching two people who can barely act act like they're barely interested in each other. Then everything nearly grinds to a halt while repetitious subplots are haphazardly thrown together.

Regardless of what you're hoping to get out of the movie -- and you'd better not hope for much -- this is a terrible screenplay.

No 'West Side Story'

Not that it matters, but Li plays Han, a high-kicking Chinese bad guy who quite unbelievably escapes from prison after learning that a member of a rival African-American gang back in the States murdered his brother. Han's father (Henry O) wouldn't mind a little revenge, so Han sets out to even the score.

But he doesn't seem especially focused. One minute he's kicking the hell out of the very people who may have snuffed his brother, then he's playing extremely rough football with them in the park. He's much more concerned with coincidentally bumping into Aaliyah than he is with finding the killer.

Delroy Lindo plays Aaliyah's father, the compassionate head of the black gang, and he actually manages to generate some emotion when he talks about trying to go straight.

It's no secret that African-American actors are woefully underused in the movies, so there's a good chance that he wound up here out of sheer desperation. But Lindo is a tremendous performer who deserves far meatier roles than this. It must be terribly depressing to move from "The Cider House Rules," with its tender script and multiple Oscar nominations, to a film where people get whacked in the chest and fly eight times farther than they would have had they been run over by a Mack truck.

Anything for art, I guess.

"Romeo Must Die" is loaded with violence, but it's not especially nasty. There's just a lot of punching, kicking, and screaming. There's also brief nudity and lots of bad language, which is bound to happen when people get drilled in the ribs by a kung fu master. By the way, don't confuse Henry O with O. Henry; there's no surprise ending. Rated R. 110 minutes.

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TIME: A quiet(ish) wedding for kickmaster Jet Li
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'Romeo Must Die'

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