Romeo Must Die opens with a late-night drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, into deepest Oakland, the music turned way up, the gleaming, gliding, saturated-blue images cut and spliced to mirror the signature syncopation of the accompanying Timbaland-produced number. For a few brief moments, the movie is thrilling, in the way Timbaland beats are thrilling—skittish yet propulsive, weirdly unstable and fearless about it. The sensory high evaporates soon enough (in the next scene, to be precise, which cuts to a dance floor and a teasing glimpse of Asian Lesbian Action with gratuitous tit shot). Romeo Must Die delivers routine kicks without living up to its iconic casting: Hong Kong martial-arts superstar Jet Li paired with hip-hop princess Aaliyah. The movie makes a show of crossing racial lines, but it’s hardly political (or even enamored with culture clash, à la Jarmusch or Wu-Tang), just demographically astute. The wall-to-wall rap score is as kinetic as the acrobatic fight choreography, and nothing else matters.
When an Asian mob boss’s son is found hanging from a tree, his brother Han (Li) breaks out of a Hong Kong jail and travels to SF to avenge his death—blamed on a black gang led by Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). The whole sorry mess has something to do with coveted waterfront property and the NFL. Against the backdrop of an escalating gang war, Han strikes up a friendship with O’Day’s daughter Trish (Aaliyah). The directorial debut of Andrzej Bartkowiak, a cinematographer whose credits include Speed, Romeo Must Die keeps the fight scenes—most of which involve an airborne Jet Li and some queasily convincing sound effects—frequent and fairly elaborate. Still, the movie fills too much of its downtime with silly mawkishness. One unbelievable flashback has Han remembering a childhood trauma shared with his brother: The two boys, adrift at sea, hold on for dear life to a basketball (the artifact that triggers the memory) and float “toward the lights of Hong Kong.”
Romeo Must Die tries to have it both ways: Race is the movie’s gimmick and its willful blind spot. Conspicuously cautious in its delineation of a racial gang war, the script ensures that the distribution of villainy is evenhanded. Meanwhile, the romantic angle promised by the title is barely acknowledged. Some Romeo—by the final scene, Han and Trish have barely worked their way up to holding hands. As modern star-cross’d lovers, Jet Li and Aaliyah would have been hard to beat; it’s a shame the Hollywood powers who brought them together didn’t have the nerve to one-up Leo and Claire.