Two warring families. A son and daughter, from each of the families, in love. No, it's not William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but rather the latest action-packed Jet Li blockbuster from Hollywood (making a character transition from Lethal Weapon 4). And one of the more enjoyable action thrillers to come out this year thusfar.
There's not much else that's similar between Romeo Must Die and the great tragedy. But that doesn't mean it's any less fun. Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo) and Chu Sing (Henry O aka Xi Reng Jiang) are the heads of the two families, one Chinese, and one black, each controlling half of the Oakland waterfront. Trish (hip-hop musician Aaliyah (Haughton)) is the daughter and Han (Li) is the son, respectively. When Han's brother is killed, the tension between the gang families rise, but a fragile truce exists until a deal with the NFL (where the waterfront property is sold to encourage the construction of a new football stadium) is sealed.
The relationship between the two families is more complex than it appears. Both the leaders have lieutenants who desire more power than they have, and so they begin orchestrating events that will lead to the overthrow of the gang bosses. As you can guess, Trish and Han are stuck in the middle and fight together to save the lives of those they love.
I think I just spent way too much time describing the plot. The sole (and excellent) reason to see this movie is for the martial arts scenes (which must be seen to be believed). Even with the computer-generated fight scenes, Jet Li is still incredible. Some credit must be given to Director Andrzej Bartkowiak who designs moves that are funny and yet breathtaking. The computer-effects sequences that illustrate how the shock wave of a blow to the body travels and renders the victim senseless are cool.
Aaliyah's acting debut is pretty respectable and her presence definitely livens up the screen. Jet Li's charisma and skills nicely match and complement hers. There is some chemistry between her and Jet Li and the couple do come off as cute. The sound track, though decent, could've been better in my view. While both DMX and Aaliyah I think are pretty good, I can't say there is much synergy between them, either on or off screen.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is buried in the end, where we see a perverse form of discrimination and perhaps some commentary on the socio-economic status of the economically underprivileged in this country (who kills so who can make more money?). Isaak is successful in getting the deeds to his quota of the waterfront property and as he gets the check from the orchestrator of the NFL deal, Vincent Roth (Edoardo Ballerini), he turns down the money and instead demands part ownership in the stadium. A conflict then ensues, not just between Roth and Isaak, but between Isaak and his second-in-command who believes Isaak is crazy for thinking that a "white guy" will let him sit in the owner's box. This is the role Delroy Lindo carries with great dignity (that is, in the end, when Isaak makes the decision he does, it's almost believable).