`Romeo' too busy to explain its plot

Review: Explosive Jet Li keeps the action going at a hectic pace, but the story holes are still distracting. `Romeo' heartbreakingly complex

March 22, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

It's a good thing there's so much going on in "Romeo Must Die," what with all the shooting, the martial arts mayhem, the gals in skimpy clothes and the guys brimming with 'tude. Such non-stop adrenalin rushes make the story holes and convoluted plotlines almost forgivable.

Almost. Just don't think about what's going on, and you should be OK.

Set in Oakland, "Romeo Must Die" pits the Asian owners of one half of the city's waterfront district against the African-American owners of the other half. Leaders on both sides are trying to get all the property owners in line to sell to them; it's all a scam, since they in turn plan to sell the land to this sleazy tycoon who's building a stadium to lure an NFL team back to the city. (Baltimore residents can sympathize with the lengths some people will go to get an NFL team).

Hong Kong action star Jet Li ("Lethal Weapon 4") is Han, the good son of Asian warlord Ch'u Sing -- so good, in fact, that he ended up in solitary in a Hong Kong prison so his father and family could escape to the West.

But when he hears that his younger brother, Po, has been murdered as part of the ongoing turf war, he escapes prison, high-tails it to the states and sets out to find who killed his brother and why.

As fate would have it, the first American he encounters is Trish, the daughter of black gang-leader Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo) -- Ch'u Sing's No. 1 enemy and the man suspected of ordering Po's death. Trish (singer Aaliyah), however, wants little to do with her father and nothing to do with his business, so naturally she's attracted to Han (who, to be fair, does exhibit one killer smile).

With the pieces thus in place, the action commences in earnest. Much of it centers on Han's efforts to avoid being clobbered by Trish's bodyguards (led by Anthony Anderson as comic foil Maurice), but there are also people being pushed out of 20th-story windows, buildings blowing up, shoot-em-ups galore and an impressive street chase involving two motorcycles and an SUV.

Don't spend too much time trying to make sense of all this. The filmmakers obviously didn't, opting instead to concentrate on Aaliyah's amply displayed charms and Jet Li's spark-plug athleticism; the guy is small, but he sure knows how to handle himself.

Andrzej Bartkowiak, a career cinematographer making his debut as a feature-film director, keeps things surging along but is too enamored of close-ups to make for a good action director. Jet Li's martial arts moves deserve to be seen full-figure, but Bartkowiak rarely trains the camera on his legs.

Although things would have improved if there were fewer plot strands to track, there's more than enough action in "Romeo Must Die" to keep the customers satisfied.

And while Jet Li's command of English leaves something to be desired -- it's his first English-speaking role -- he's adept enough at the one-liners to give us ample opportunity to see that impish grin and remind us that he's not taking this whole thing seriously, so why should we?

`Romeo Must Die'

Starring Jet Li, Aaliyah and Isaiah Washington

Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (violence, some language and brief nudity)

Running time 105 minutes

Sun score **

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