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by: Michael Dequina

The big challenge faced by hot Hong Kong talent looking to make the transition to mainstream American stardom is to expand their audience without watering down the special qualities that earned them cult U.S. followings to begin with. More often than not, it's a losing battle--witness director John Woo's lacking initial stateside efforts, Tomorrow Never Dies' fleeting taste of Michelle Yeoh's considerable capabilities, and the disappointing Jackie Chan lite on display in Rush Hour. Against all odds and expectations, however, martial artist extraordinaire Jet Li has managed to buck that dismaying trend, first with his movie-stealing villain turn in Lethal Weapon 4 and now his first U.S. starring vehicle, the satisfying actioner Romeo Must Die.

As is so often the case with films such as these, the story of Romeo Must Die cannot be called satisfying in itself. The main concern of the plot is a routine bit of business involving a pair of rival crime syndicates--one Asian, the other African-American--engaged in a violent war over the control of waterfront property in Oakland. The first casualty is the Asian crimelord Ch'u Sing's (Henry O) son, younger brother of Hong Kong convict Han (Li), who breaks out of prison and travels to Oakland to, per usual, settle the score. Such a familiar story would not be complete without Han taking a liking to someone with rival gang ties--namely, Trish (Aaliyah), headstrong daughter of the African-American gang's boss, Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo).

While the script by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell doesn't break any new ground--its twists won't surprise anyone--it does provide a sturdy enough foundation for what everyone pays admission to see: fight scenes. And these scenes deliver; first-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak (who had previously made his name as a cinematographer) just about steps out of the way and lets Li and fight choreographer Corey Yuen do their thing. Fans of Li's famous high-flying wire stunts will get their fix, but that effect is wisely used in moderation, generally to punctuate some of Li's already-impressive maneuvers. Bartkowiak isn't completely hands-off, though, and he puts an innovative x-ray visual effect--with which one can literal see victims' bones crack--to good, measured use. Some fight scenes obviously exist just for the sole purpose of having them, serving no real necessity to the story, but when they are as polished and exciting as they are here, it's petty to complain.

Li was undoubtedly cast for his athletic prowess, but he also fares pretty well in the other scenes, coasting on an easygoing charisma when his English skills falter. He shares a gentle rapport with R&B chanteuse Aaliyah, who is the real revelation of the film. For a screen neophyte, she delivers a relaxed and impressively natural performance, even pulling off some challenging emotional scenes. The veteran of the cast, Lindo is a welcome presence, adding some needed gravity to the proceedings; and it's a pleasure to see Russell Wong, who had previously proven his fighting chops in the short-lived television series Vanishing Son, back in action as Ch'u Sing's head enforcer.

The title Romeo Must Die is a vague allusion to the even vaguer allusions to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the film. Thankfully, that's as pretentious as the film gets. All Romeo Must Die wants to be is one brisk jolt of action, and that's exactly what it is.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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