"Romeo must die" is notable for two things. It was the first film made by the R&B singer Aaliyah. It was also the first starring role for Jet Li in an American film. He had previously had a minor role in "Lethal Weapon 4", which impressed the producer Joe Silver so much that he promised him a part in his next film.
The film's title refers to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". There are two gangs in the middle of a war in Oakland, California. Han Sing (Jet Li) is the son of the boss of the Chinese gang, while Trish O'Day (Aaliyah) is the daughter of the boss of the black gang. Han is actually a Hong Kong policeman, not a member of his father's gang, but someone has killed Han's brother and Han is determined to get revenge.
I wish I could give the film a higher rating. Jet Li's fight scenes are amazing, and whenever he shares screen time with Aaliyah the passion is smouldering, her serious attitude clashing with his boyish humour, but the film overall seems like a cheap made-for-television movie. Both gangs are stereotypes of Chinese and African American cultures, and the characters have no depth.
The film poster draws a connection with "The Matrix". Ironically, Jet Li and Aaliyah were both offered roles in "The Matrix Reloaded". Jet Li was offered the role of Seraph, but he felt that he was overqualified for the role. That might sound like arrogance, but I understand it from his point of view. "The Matrix" is full of fake fighting by actors without martial arts skills. It's true that the fight scenes are spectacular, due to excellent choreographing and the injection of stunt men wherever necessary, but the fighting is still fake. Jet Li is the most skilled martial arts expert among actors today, holding black belts in several different fighting styles.
Aaliyah was due to play Zee in "The Matrix Reloaded", but the role had to be recast after her death in 2001.
I wonder if the photographer asked Aaliyah to crouch in the publicity photo for "Romeo must die". She was actually taller than Jet Li. He's only 5'5" tall, but don't call him Shorty. You'll regret it.
Despite my criticism of the film, I'm glad that I saw it. Before "Romeo must die" I had never heard of Jet Li. After watching it I started buying his previous Chinese films on DVD. Since 2000 he has been making films both in China and America. I'm sure he earns more money in Hollywood, but from an artistic point of view his Chinese films are better.
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