“With Jet Li going to war as only he can,” smirks the cover of my Romeo Must Die DVD, “Romeo Must Die is alive and kicking.” This film purports to be a Jet Li vehicle – “his first English-language lead role” (1) and it really fucks up its potential. By the time he made his first American movie, Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998 (Romeo Must Die was his second), Li had made at least 24 martial arts films in Asia. Starting off as a wu shu prodigy in China during his teens, he became a martial arts movie star in Asia during the 90s, had a healthy cult following in the west and is generally regarded as one of the most famous screen fighters of his generation. In films that were made especially for Li, there is an inherent promise of the way Li is going to be used and the sort of action we are going to be shown. But, in terms of at least some of the films Li made in the west, it turns out these things are rendered ridiculous, unwittingly mocked or spoofed or just plain under delivered.
You can actually tell a lot about a film, and the focus or priorities of the people who made it, when you consider the Special Features included on the DVD release of that film. For example, on the Romeo Must Die DVD, the Special Features include a featurette called Inside the Visual Effects Process. This nauseating little doco pays tribute to the creativity and technology invested in the x-ray imagery graphics shown in this film. These graphics are featured whenever someone’s bones are broken – the impact of a hit is shown in animation as travelling along and then fracturing the victim’s bone. The smug visual effects dudes interviewed in the featurette seemed to be a little too much in love with the prospect of seeing someone’s bones breaking in x-ray – “The new level of expressing pain in cinema” intones Visual FX Supervisor Barnaby Robson at one point. The problem I have with this gimmick is that it immerses the audience’s perspective in pain and bodily damage, which I find gratuitously brutal. Odd as it may sound, I do not watch martial arts films to rejoice in the pain and damage the human body is capable of experiencing, but rather to rejoice in physical movement, virtuosity, grace and technique (and there is considerably less of this on show in Romeo Must Die than in Li’s Hong Kong movies). This x-ray gimmick forces me to shift my perspective from the heroic spectacle of a well-trained body performing beautifully crafted choreography to participating in the machismo and cool-obsessed perspective of the people who made this film. I do not welcome such an intrusion on my personal aesthetic.
Jet Li faces off against Russell Wong in the film’s climactic fight scene. Poor old Russell is a good looking bloke but as an action performer he comes across as looking stodgy and heavy in comparison with Li. In the Special Features somewhere is footage showing Wong describing Li as the Baryshnikov of martial arts, and I like this quote as it alludes to the artistry that Li brings to his performances – he is not just an athlete doing tricks, but an artist capable of nuancing his technique to facilitate the interpretation of a role, or the dynamics of a style of martial arts, or the heightening of a mood or emotion within a scene. I feel that martial artistry has a diminished role in Romeo Must Die, and, because of this, the martial artist in its cast is not given enough material with which he can demonstrate the artistry and performance techniques that are unique to him. This situation is especially problematic to Romeo Must Die and some of Li’s other American films like Cradle 2 the Grave and Rogue Assassin (War in the United States), because the martial artist in question is the supposed star of the film.
“If the film cannot integrate Jet Li into his own film, it stumbles even more over its incorporation of ‘Hong Kong action’” (p. 175, Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt). Compared to the choreography in such great Hong Kong martial arts films as My Father is a Hero and Fong Sai Yuk and its sequel, the choreography in Romeo Must Die looks simplistic and somehow slow in its execution (although the editing is often too fast(2)). This is startling, and perhaps telling, as the choreographer for the Hong Kong films mentioned here was the choreographer on Romeo Must Die. Corey Yuen is widely regarded as one of the great martial arts choreographers to come out of Hong Kong. As well as probably having less control over the shooting and editing of his choreography than in Hong Kong films, one problem that Yuen and Li have in American films (speaking generally) is the calibre of the stars who are available to fight against Li. What I said above about Li’s artistry equally applies to people such as Donnie Yen, Chin Siu Ho, Xiong Xin Xin, Jackie Chan, Yam Sai Kwun, Kurata Yasuaki, Billy Chow, Ngai Sing, and others who have faced off against Li as screen fighters in Li’s Hong Kong movies. Actors like Russell Wong or even renowned action stars like Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon 4) or the athletic Jason Statham (Rogue Assassin) bring good things to their performances in action movies, to be sure, but as martial artists they bring nothing for Li or his choreographers to work off. The pairing of Li with screen fighters of equal ability and with complimentary performative dynamics, and supported where necessary by those teams of anonymous but highly skilled Hong Kong stunt men, allows the choreographers in these films to respond with heightened creativity, a detailed approach to rendering the aesthetic dynamics of various martial arts styles, and the opportunity to laden their work with baroque displays of virtuosity. The attempts at virtuosity in Romeo Must Die have been firmly directed in the area of special effects. I would also argue that this film engages in some vigorous cultural acrobatics. This film bends over backwards to establish its street cred – it has R & B singer Aaliyah as the female lead, a scene featuring a grid iron match, and the art direction and soundtrack pay frequent homage to (mainly black) urban American street culture.
Where is Li in amongst all this bombast? The martial arts fight scenes are mostly too short, infrequent and simplistic to allow Li to show off his special abilities at their best, and the busy agendas of the film makers to show off their CGI tricks and their cool credentials threaten to crowd Li out of his own vehicle. “As we have seen, Romeo Must Die alienated some viewers not only by wasting’ Li’s physical talents, but by failing to locate its fantastic spectacle within a coherent digetic world.” p. 199, Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt
In the DVD Special Features, director Andrei Bartkowiak at one stage describes Li as a method actor with martial arts ability. He says that sometimes during filming in Lethal Weapon 4 (on which Batkowiak worked as Director of Photography) Li moved so fast that the camera couldn’t catch him. Alas, in Romeo Must Die, Li’s speed was not the only thing that the camera and, by extension, the film couldn’t catch.
Romeo Must Die is a poor showcase for the artistry in martial arts film making. The efficacy of great martial arts choreography is not realized, and strategies peculiar to this art form, such as the use of wire fu, are so crudely used that it renders them laughable. I take a closer look at the use of wire fu and martial arts choreography in this film in my next blog.
(1) Back cover of Warner Brothers DVD release of Romeo Must Die.
(2) On Romeo Must Die action scenes: “… any potential visceral impact is consistently undercut by the frantic and obtrusive editing” p 247, Chasing Dragons, David West.