Less a movie, more a global marketing exercise, Romeo Must Die attempts to please all races, all nations and all levels of society by giving them all exactly what they want, all the time. In doing so, you'll not be surprised to hear that it comes across as mostly patchy and infrequently exciting. Try to imagine a Hong Kong action movie remade by the people responsible for all Britney Spears videos and Coca-Cola TV ads, and you're on the right track.
As an American film inspired by Asian cinema but aimed at Western audiences, it feels compelled to stick within what they think we know about Orientals. So the Chinese police brutally oppress Hong Kong and all the characters are bound by honour and tradition to each other - - regardless of the fact that Jet Li is an ex-policeman while the rest of his family are a Triad gang. And, of course, they'reall great at kung fu fighting.
And since it's also an American film hoping to do well at the Asian box-office, it feels compelled to show a version of America that Oriental audiences will find familiar. So it's all sprayed-down streets, tough-talking cops and bad-ass home-boys packing their nines, chowing down on pizza and listening to the wall-to-wall hip hop music which blankets the movie. So pretty much like every other Hollywood gangsta movie, then.
This design-by-focus-group hits a snag by trying to offend no one. As the title suggests, the film's a very loose take on the Shakespeare play, with a pair of star-cross'd lovers falling for each other across a gang divide. This is tricky to market, as the Triads can't be so evil as to alienate the Asian viewer, while the African-Americans can't be nasty enough to upset the homegrown, rap-loving Stateside audience.
So for most of the movie, everyone is really, really nice. Sure, Jet Li takes a bit of stick from the gangstas, but mostly they're just good-natured guys up for a laugh who don't take it too personally when he beats the crap out of them. Similarly, although the Triads are quite inscrutable, they're still up for partying.
That all might have been an enjoyable background to loads of cool chop-socky action, but this interplay takes up most of the flabby two-hour running time. For a man who's only been in Hollywood a few years, Jet Li's delivery is good, while his acting and fighting skills have never been disputed. But he can't hold the movie together, especially when Hollywood has missed the point again by muddying the fights with needless editing, wobbly camerawork, flashy CG additions and obvious wire-work. Neither a good gangster pic nor martial-arts movie - and not exciting enough to warrant anything other than a video rental.
Romeo Must Die's mix of pop and rap actors, kung fu fighting, family ties and East meets West has ended up as a confused jumble. It looks very pretty and is extremely slick in places, but Jet Li's first English-speaking lead has very little going for it.