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Movie Review

Romeo Must Die

MPAA Rating: R for violence, some language, and brief nudity

Reviewed by: Carole Stewart McDonnell

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
16 to Adult
Action Adventure
1 hr. 55 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Scene from “Romeo Must Die”
Featuring: Jet Li, Russell Wong, Aaliyah, Aaaliyah Haughton, Isaiah Washington
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak, Glen MacPherson
Producer: Joel Silver, Jim Van Wyck
Distributor: Warner Brothers

Turf and surf

Scene from “Romeo Must Die”

“Romeo Must Die” is a gangster turf-war film with a twist. It is a quirky multicultural hybrid of the predominately Asian martial art film and the predominately African-American hip hop movie. Gangster films are essentially stories about outsiders—usually racial outsiders—trying to achieving the American Dream. And love stories are basically about a young prince and princess leaving the family castle and going forth to create castles and kingdoms of their own. Of course, issues of family loyalty tend to crop up. How much of her kingdom does Juliet bring with her as she leaves her kingdom and family behind? “Romeo Must Die” manages to blend all these elements in a funny, interesting way… And yet, there are a few lingering and troubling issues.

The question of turf (and surf) is established as soon as the movie begins. An Asian youth is kissing his Asian girlfriend and ogling two scantily-clad Asian women who are also kissing each other. Several patrons of the club are noticeably upset. Asian men, it seems, are not allowed in African-American night clubs. (This rule doesn’t seem to apply to Asian women.) There is a short testosterone-filled struggle and the next day, this problem youth—who happens to be the young son/problem of a leader of the Chinese families—turns up dead. Assumptions are made and a turf war begins between the Blacks and the Chinese. (The riverfront is divided between them) but the murdered youth’s younger brother, Han (Jet Li), escapes from prison to avenge his brother’s death. And who does he bump into on his first day home? Trish O’Day, (hip hop star Aaliyah) the daughter of Isaak O’Day, Black Gangster Bigwig. Does the plot sound familiar? A little Shakespearean, perhaps? If it does, think again.

“Romeo Must Die” is a story about family loyalty and betrayal… the type of betrayal even Shakespeare’s Romeo couldn’t have fathomed. It’s a mystery, a morality tale, and a family parable all rolled together. Both overlords have real sons and “spiritual” sons. Sons of their loins, and sons of their own spirits. Is it a good thing to have a son whom one has trained to be like one’s self? Depends.

This movie will be a mixed bag for Christians. The plot has a lot more offenses than one would expect and a lot less. The offenses are moral, sexual, and racial. For instance, the opening credits: music featuring a great blend of Chinese and hip-hop film-making traditions, but with some offensive words in it. Yet the movie as a whole has few foul-mouthed characters. Social order and hierarchy is everywhere, yet the cops, who represent society’s true order, are almost non-existent. There is a lot of fighting which kids might want to imitate and yet there the storyline is interesting and has a nice little twist at the end. The movie seems to be giving an oddly moral message about sex: guys who have girlfriends invariably get killed—perhaps because all that mental lust (and pot-smoking) blurred their thinking. The main female character is won over partly because of Han’s sense of humor, but also by his great fighting skills. And yet, in a movie that shows two showgirls playing tongue-hockey, there is not so much as a chaste kiss between the two stars. Not that I go to the movies for kissing scenes, but the omission makes a person wonder. In addition, there is the virtual absence of mothers. Granted, gangster films are primarily about men, fathers, and authority and sons. Mothers are generally useless in gangster films, but the filmmakers of “Romeo Must Die” knocked off both sets of mothers, yet manage to have the mothers live on as a kind of pure sweet memory of distant goodness.

Christians might also be offended at the idea that the fundamental cause of many minority crimes are caused by evil “legit” white folks high up in the power structure. As often occurs in gangster films, the seemingly legitimate white world is not as pure and pristine as it seems. The outsiders want “in” and desire to provide a “legit” heritage/inheritance for their children. But the upper-middle class white echelons are just as tainted and just as evil as the “gangster world.” And the big trouble is: the whites just don’t want to give minorities an equal share of the American pie. The movie ends up being a morality tale with a minority twist. Where money rules, all is selfishness, the wages of sins is usually death and betrayal, even if there is a “legit” aim in mind.

Some questions linger in my mind about this film. The questions may not bother the average American movie-goer, but they will bother some folks in the audience. Firstly, just what is the relationship between Romeo and his Juliet? Why wasn’t there even a small kiss? The omission makes one wonder. Was this a plot point calculated for demographics and racial sensitivity? Or are these two kids from bad families just really, really, really chaste? Or are they just friends? Second question: why are the only black women in this film light-skinned black women? The third question: why is sexiness defined as snottiness? Trish’s attitude reminded me of too many obnoxious TV teenagers. Not that I want a dish-rag, but this tendency to define sexuality as “attitude” is tiresome. And the fourth and last question: are all fat black men funny? Are they the new Amos and Andy? “Wuzzup” with that?

Viewer Comments
This movie was so kool especially the fight scenes. It was was kool when Jet Li broke someones arm or neck they would show an x ray of the skeleton being broken. Totally dope. Why the reviewer gave this a 3 I don’t know. There is a lot of violence in it…
I personally enjoyed the movie. Most of the swearing and the profanity was in the music or for comic relief, not to pardon those words, but perhaps, because the profanity wasn’t used by the “heros” and only by the bad guys in the movie it didn’t really glorify swearing. I thought the “Romeo and Juliet” not kissing was a cool addition. It made their love purer in my eyes, making it seem like they were “really really really” waiting for marriage. Perhaps the movie company wanted a sex scene and some other things and the director was filling a quota? I don’t know. Also, as far as the white, black, chinese scene, it didn’t really bother me or anything like that. It actually seemed kind of decent. I am half “white” and half “chinese” so I can objectivly comment, it didn’t offend either of my “ethnicities” although as Christians we should remember that we are a part of the Human Race when living life and watching movies. Although this movie was fun, and exciting, I wouldn’t take my child to it unless my child was at least 15 or 16 and mature enough to handle the fighting scenes without wanting to go home and beat his/her siblings.
—Kevin Wang, age 17