The late Bruce Lee is synonymous with the genre of Kung-Fu movies from the 1970s. Bruce Lee exuded the martial arts mastery in film, his own death coming during a fight scene in “Enter the Dragon.” While entertaining some thirty-plus years ago, do gratuitous hand-to-hand style Kung-Fu fight films still hold cred in today’s hard core, fast-paced world of weapons, guns, and explosions?
In 2000, Polish director Andrezj Bartkowiak made his directorial debut by attempting to merge the genres of Kung-Fu and hip hop. The result was ludicrous fight scenes, poor acting, terrible music, and a movie called “Romeo Must Die.” The film features two stars in debut roles on stage; twenty-one year old hip hop recording artist Aaliyah, and renowned martial arts master Jet Li. The rising talent Aaliyah was tragically killed in a plane crash a year after the release of the movie. Jet Li had starred in numerous Chinese films dating back to the early ‘8os and after a role in “Lethal Weapon 4” was ready to get top billing. Unfortunately, the movie really proves one thing; Jet Li should stick to martial arts, and musicians should stick to music.
The movie begins in a seedy Oakland night club, and just a handful of minutes in, we are treated to the first of several nonsensicaland cartoonish fights. There is a turf war going on between two gangs; the Chinese and the blacks – each of which controls half of Oakland’s coveted waterfront property. Leading the gang of Asians is fight master Kai (Russell Wong) who handles the entire onslaught single-handedly. You’ll be able to guess why Kai is even in the film at all pretty quickly. The fight ends only when the club owner (played by rapper DMX) appears firing a handful of UZIs and spewing forth cuss words.
The next day, the elder leader of the Chinese gang, Ch’u Sing (Henry O) is infuriated when his son Po is found assassinated, prompting further tension between the two gangs as Ch’u believes the black gang, led by Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo) is responsible.
Across the Pacific in a Hong Kong prison, an inmate named Han (Jet Li) receives a mysterious whisper in his ear, prompting him to initiate another outlandish fight, taking out half a dozen armed prison guards in the process, and escapes unscathed (prompting one to wonder; if he could have done that, why was he staying in the jail?)
Fearful of retribution against his own family, Isaak sends guards to watch over his independent and free-of-crime daughter Trish (Aaliyah). He discusses with his son Colin (“24’s” D.B. Woodside) the future of the family business. Isaak is attempting to go clean and get out of criminal activities, something that seems to upset his top assistant Mac (Isaiah Washington).
There are no restrictions on Air China flights from Hong Kong to Oakland regarding escaped felons, and Han lands in The Oak undetected. Upon arrival, we learn through a ridiculous flashback that Han is the older brother of Po. Han decides it’s his birthright to avenge the death of his younger brother.
While hotwiring a taxi cab, Trish jumps in and mistakes him for the driver. In what could be the most uncomfortable scene of all time, Trish and Han offer flirtatious ramblings before Han drops Trish off and disappears.
The rest of the plot is moot at best; Han and Trish work together to find out what is really going on, stopping to comically fight every so often against guards that, although armed, never seem bright enough to shoot. The poor acting is what happens when non-actors are thrust into starring roles. The attempted love connection between Jet Li and Aaliyah could be the most unbelievable and forced coupling since Phyllis Gates and Rock Hudson. Jet Li gets effort points for trying – you can tell he really wants to succeed but can’t overcome the obvious language and cultural barriers. In one scene he is smoking a cigarette – and even that doesn’t look real. The bright spot for acting goes to Isaiah Washington who plays the snakelike Mac well enough to be believable as an underhanded cutthroat.
Extremely poor writing doesn’t help either. There is a minuscule reference at one point that Han is a former policeman. This seems to be thrown in for no other reason than to justify Han as a “good person” at heart, thus explaining away and justifying the wake of bodies he leaves after every time he exits a room. Even the title, while cool and gripping, makes virtually no sense at all – explained by a quick titular comment minutes before the end of the movie. As is often the case with hip hop backed movies, the plot and writing suffer at the hands of promoting the artists latest records.
If you want to see a great fight, check out an MMA match – at least when that’s over there’s a winner.
– by Matt Christopher