September 17, 2010

Romeo Must Die

Jet Li is what you'd get if you combined Jackie Chan's agility with Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry personality. He has, I've observed, about three emotional responses to any given situation: a scowl, a deadpan expression, or a smile. Which can be quite engaging. He might even have comic timing, but as he's been channeled into "hard edged" films (similar to Chan's early Hong Kong films) it's hard to tell.

What he does share with Jackie Chan is a physical grace that makes rock 'em, sock 'em actors like Stallone and Van Damme look like large earth movers. Unfortunately, his U.S. film debut, Romeo Must Die, is a poor vehicle for demonstrating it.

Yes, there are Shakespearean allusions, focusing on a turf war between two gangs on the San Francisco waterfront, and the mixed race relationship between Jet Li and (the late) Aaliyah. And it would have been preferable had they stuck to Shakespeare and done something more with the great title. It certainly would have been more coherent.

There's enough plot here for three films. After a rousing start (some creative opening credits) and Jet Li's jail breakout sequence, absolutely nothing interesting happens for the next forty-five minutes while all the storylines get developed.

It almost threatens to turn into a Columbo episode. And you don't watch a Jet Li movie expecting a whodunit. Especially when they get around the language problem by having him speak about ten lines in the entire movie. What you want is the good guy here, the bad guys over there, and then a bunch of flimsy excuses for the good guy to beat the crap out of the bad guys.

A better Jet Li showcase is a Hong Kong import, The Enforcer (some creativity in the titling department, perhaps?). It's your standard Hong Kong uncover cop plot, but like I said, innovation in the plot department isn't what's important.

This time around, Li is well matched with Anita Mui, and it helps to have an action co-star who can do more than just stand around and watch when the fighting starts.

But what really makes The Enforcer fun is Tsu Miu, who plays his son. Now, twelve-year-olds beating up adults is always ludicrous, especially hand to hand, but this kid is so good that you're willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the acrobatics.