Romeo Must Die

Romeo Must Die (2000)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Jet Li, Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, Delroy Lindo, Russell Wong
Extras: 13 Featurettes, Music Videos, Trailers

Expectations were naturally high when Jet Li finally appeared in his first lead role here in a major Hollywood motion picture. It hit theaters earlier this year under the title "Romeo Must Die" and is now coming to DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video, who do have a bit of experience "blending" Hong Kong elements with modern American tastes, as we have seen in "The Matrix."

On two opposing sides of the river, the Chinese mob and a black crime family own the most important territories in Oakland. Although there has never been open war between these two opposing factions, hostility between the members of these covenants is daily routine. One day Po, the son of the Chinese mob leader is murdered. Although he suspects Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo) and his people of the murder, the old Chinese man is wisely holding back, in order to observe the situation and make his move later.

In the meanwhile, Po’s brother Han (Jet Li) escapes a Hong Kong prison where he has been held in his father’s stead. When he hears about the death of his brother he is determined to go to America and find out the truth. But before he can even begin his search, he runs into Trish O’Day (Aaliyah), unknowing that she may actually be the center of the whole enigma. But the two soon built a relationship of trust when Trish’s brother is killed in what seems to be an act of reprisal by the Chinese. Slowly building a romantic bond, the two decide to find out what is really going on between the two families and they find out what really drives this war.

As expected, "Romeo Must Die" is a vehicle tailor made for Jet Li. Without weapons or other fluff, he fights his way through the roughs of this film with nothing but his bare fists and his amazing Martial Arts skills while facing seemingly uneven – and heavily armed – odds. There are some breathtaking moments in these fight sequences but at the same time, some of them are not nearly as well choreographed and edited as one would hope. Obvious wire-tricks and erratic cutting oftentimes destroy the illusion of a seamless fight, and will have many viewers walk away with the impression that Jet Li is nothing but an artificially hyped sensation, when in fact for many years he has proven to be one of the most skilled Martial Arts working in modern cinema. Given his limited mastery of the English language, the delivery of his character Han is nonetheless rather smooth and believable. Cool and hip, Jet Li manages to show us a very likeable and reasonable young man who seeks to find the truth, rather than let himself be blindsided by personal revenge. As such the character and the movie become beautiful advocates for tolerance and humanity, which I found refreshing in a movie of this kind.

Being a brand-new release, "Romeo Must Die" comes with a beautiful transfer on this DVD. Presented in the movie’s original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio, the <$16x9,anamorphic> image has a very high level of detail and strong colors. No defects or blemishes are evident in the source print from which this transfer has been struck, creating an image that is very stable and clean. Color reproduction of the sharp image is very natural with realistic shadow delineation. Hues and tinges are beautifully restores, which gives "Romeo Must Die" a very powerful and very appealing look, oftentimes reminiscent of real Hong Kong movies, actually. The blacks in the transfer are deep and well defined without breaking up, giving the image visual depth, while the highlights are never over-emphasized, keeping the picture at a very pleasing balance at all times. The compression is without artifacts, such as <$pixelation,pixelation>, and leaves the detailed transfer fully intact without unwanted aberrations.

"Romeo Must Die" features a very aggressive and modern <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio mix – too modern for my taste at times. The soundtrack has not been adjusted for near-field monitoring and as a result there is an innate unbalance in the mix that can be found with very many new films that are converted directly from their theatrical presentation to DVD. Sound effects are clearly too loud in the mix and too exaggerated, oftentimes rendering dialogues undistinguishable and drowning out the music. While this may work for viewing in a spacious movie theater, it is very unsuitable for an experience in your own living room or home theater. The track features a very aggressive mix that makes constant use of the surrounds and creates a very enveloping sound field. Fidelity and spatial integration of the mix is excellent and on many occasions the viewers feels as if he were part of the action. The track’s bass extension is going very low with sub-harmonics that are sure to pump your subwoofer. The high end is generally clear without any noticeable distortion.

The movie’s hip-hop music score is also reproduced quite powerfully with deep basses that drive the beat home nicely. I am not sure why hip-hop seems to be the music of choice for "domesticized" martial arts films, but once again I feel that the music is out of place for the movie. Fortunately however, it is not as hard-core as in many other comparable films. Especially Aaliyah’s songs give the film of a less aggressive mentality with less erratic beats and lyrics. Incidentally two of these songs are also presented with their full music videos on the disc, complemented by a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of these videos.

A series of small production featurettes, each running about 5 minutes, can also be found on the DVD. Each one covers a different aspect of the movie, such as selected stunts, and the characters. With interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, these featurettes give you a nice impression about the work on the movie and a good look behind the cameras. I found especially the material on the stunt work very interesting and informative, as it shows some of the raw talent at work without editing, lighting and other dramaturgic devices.

Then of course there are your usual suspects, the promotional featurettes that take a quick look at the set, the special effects and other elements of the film to pique some interest in the movie itself. Fast edited, they serve their purpose well to create additional mystique around the film through their almost trailer-like presentation of movie clips and short interview snippets. Once again the stunt work is highlighted in some of these segments, while the special effects and sound mix are covered in others. A 15-minute "HBO First Look" featurette that is also on this release perfectly fits into that bill as yet, covering a lot of the elements of the movie in a rapid sequence that is more destined to interest people in the actual movie than being truly explanatory of the subject matter. Altogether these segments cover a good mix of interesting aspects of the film’s production, giving viewers a nice look behind the scenes.

"Romeo Must Die" is without a doubt one of the weaker films Jet Li has had on his slate, but is still entertaining. Sadly it seems already obvious that he becomes typecast in dark urban-type films, which I personally regret very much, as his talents can go much farther than that and his genuinely charismatic appearance can light up the screen if given the chance. Fans of the star will undoubtedly want to see Jet Li’s first Hollywood leading role and with this DVD it is easy and rather enjoyable. Nonetheless maybe next time the filmmakers should try to do something more original than trying to simply duplicate established Hong Kong’s action formulas.