“If the film (Romeo Must Die) cannot integrate Jet Li into his own film, it stumbles even more over its incorporation of ‘Hong Kong action’. Romeo Must Die is, visually, a post-Matrix film, but it does not have its predecessor’s fantasy remit to explain why fighters float in mid-air… the CGI-enhanced wirework looks as though it has strayed from a very different movie.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 175
I have always found Romeo Must Die (2000) to be a very unsatisfying film to watch, and a dreadful waste of the talents of frequent collaborators Jet Li (as performer) and Corey Yuen Kuei (as choreographer). There are many elements in this mawkish movie that jar on me, including the use of wire fu in the action scenes. It just doesn’t work. The movie is set in contemporary urban America, and bends over backwards to establish its coolness and street savviness. As an exercise in style and cultural referencing the film is as far removed from the wire fu infused action of a Hong Kong New Wave martial arts film or the fantasy laden jianghu world of a wuxia pian as it seems possible to be. There is no reason or context for Jet Li’s character to suddenly take flight and perform gravity defying wire stunts in the action scenes. It looks dumb.
When I first read the above quote in Kung Fu Cult Master I felt satisfied that Hunt had pinned down a reason why the action in Romeo just doesn’t work. And I still do agree with what he says. But there is more to it than that. I recently rewatched Hong Kong film The Defender (1994) which also features Jet Li as performer and Corey Yuen Kuei as choreographer (1). The Defender has a contemporary urban setting (in Hong Kong rather than the US) and therefore has no more of a “fantasy remit” than Romeo Must Die, and certainly less than The Matrix with its sci-fi futuristic setting, to have its characters zoom up into the air to perform wire fu. However, The Defender’s final fight scene does incorporate some wire fu – in the final fight scene Collin Chou’s character literally bounces off the wall in preparation to deliver some kicking movements which are no less elaborate than those executed by Jet Li during some of the wire fu in Romeo Must Die. Unlike the wire fu in Romeo, the wire fu in The Defender’s climactic fight seems to sit comfortably alongside and within the rest of the ground based choreography within this urban, contemporary love story.
So how has Yuen and his team managed to give themselves a creative ‘remit’ to use wire fu, and other elaborate choreographic contrivances, in order to make the action in The Defender look compelling? And despite the presence and input of Li and Yuen, what has director Andrzej Bartkowiak and his team done to exclude such a remit from Romeo Must Die?
Many of the fights in Romeo Must Die feature some wire fu, and the action scenes centred around the grid iron match in the park, in the O’Day headquarters, and the final fight scene all rely on wire fu for their major climactic visual moments. What a pity, then, that the use of wire fu at these moments looks so silly, gratuitous and clumsily inserted. By contrast, Colin Chou suddenly vaulting into wired up action during the climactic fight scene in The Defender engages rather than jars upon the audience’s viewing of the scene. One reason for this is that I believe that although the wired up movements in The Defender are a momentary highlight in the fight scene, wire fu is just one creative strategy among many that director and choreographer Corey Yuen uses to add dynamism to this fight. In short, wire fu is equal to but not more predominant among a slew of the other elements that make this fight such a corker. All in all, the fight choreography in The Defender seems to focus on the human skill required to execute martial arts movements.
As I stated in my previous blog about Romeo Must Die, any display of virtuosity in the movie is of CGI, with the martial arts (Li’s area of expertise) seemingly dumbed down and taking second place. The one instance of Li’s skills being given centre stage for a few moments is the lovely sequence featuring him fighting with the fire hose in the fight scene in the O’Day headquarters:
“…Romeo Must Die‘s most overmediated moment is quickly followed by the blinding return of the real – Li’s virtusoso use of a firehose as a rope dart, circling and spinning in a way that only a highly trained performer can… and, as yet, technology might ‘capture’ it but never surpass it.” (pp. 198-199, Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt). Apart from the fire hose sequence, we must be content with mere glimpses of Li’s martial arts adeptness – a few moments of slick and rapid fire striking and grappling at the end of the grid iron match, the odd classy looking kick here and there. This sequence with the fire hose stands in stark contrast to the clumsy and plodding movement that predominates the rest of the action, and brings home what a gap there is between the action scenes in Romeo Must Die and those the fans of Li and Yuen’s Hong Kong films are more accustomed to seeing. One reason why the wire fu doesn’t work in Romeo Must Die is that it seems to over reach. The wired up movements in the film seem to be extravagantly elaborate and it sits so oddly with the lack lustre choreography and / or execution of the rest of the action. As one small example, the final fight scene climaxes in a couple of wired up gravity defying kicks. Just before these are delivered, we see Li delivering a series of punches to Russell Wong’s torso. Maybe these look tough and rough if you’re into that sort of thing, but creatively? Boring! To go from this pedestrian movement to the over the top kicks looks silly – the wire fu seems to have no organic flow on from the action preceding it and just looks tacked on. The wire fu moments in The Defender, on the other hand, happen and look great but then the action quickly passes on because Yuen has other tricks he wants us to see as well – clever things happen with props such as a wet towel, venetian blinds or a dripping tap being incorporated into the action and, most of all, the driving aesthetic focus of the choreography is on the delivery of intricate combinations of real human movement by 2 highly skilled performers.
In the quote in the paragraph above Leon Hunt talks about Romeo Must Die’s “… most overmediated moment…” He is referring to a piece of CGI manipulated wire fu during the fight scene in the O’Day headquarters:
“…Li jumps, rotates horizontally in mid-air to kick a group of henchmen, ‘reverses’ onto a ledge and then jumps down to deliver a couple more kicks. This ‘continuous’ take – technologically complex and yet breathtakingly silly – was in fact three ‘morphed’ shots, which already relied on digitally removed wirework. Li had long been the most wired-up of kung fu stars, but the fan response on the internet suggests that this was a step too far. If wirework is a bone of contention for some fans, it does at least require performative skill. I suspect that what fans objected to, above all, was the impression that Li had been motion-captured and reduced to an animated combo, not so much Jet Li as Nintendo Li.” p. 198, Kung Fu Cult Masters.
“Nintendo Li.” Geddit? What a great quote, and I think Hunt has nailed something here in this analysis. Love it or hate it, even (especially?) the elaborate wire work of the 1990s Hong Kong New Wave martial arts films like Swordsman 2 or Warriors from Zu Mountain does require “performative skill”, and suggests the same sort of athleticism and coordination as that displayed by an aerial performer in a circus. Due to the paucity of advanced technology in Hong Kong films until recently, when you watch wire fu in many Hong Kong films it is actually possible to see the wire attached to the performers in some shots. This lack of technological polish actually reinforces to me the fact that these performers had no technology to hide behind and that apart from the wires the spectacular nature of the wired up stunts came down to the physical skill of the stunt performer. During that wired up moment in The Defender Colin Chou gets some extra height and some interesting angles at which to position his body to do those kicks, but it is his physicality and the brilliance of his execution that makes the movement so dynamic. The special effect (in this case the wire fu) is used to highlight and add to the physical movement, not to supersede it. In Romeo Must Die, the focus is on playing with technological trickery at the expense of physical performance. As “Nintendo Li”, Jet Li is used as an animate prop in a display of CGI wizardry – he serves it, it doesn’t serve his performance or the choreography.
But so what? The Matrix was a ground breaking film in terms of CGI. Everything about the film – it’s cast (good looking but martial arts novices with a mere 6 months training), it’s mise en scene, it’s futuristic setting and sci-fi storyline, even Yuen Wu Ping’s choreography and the way it was filmed and edited (2), has been selected and presented to facilitate the technology of the film making. I don’t like The Matrix, but many people do, and even I can admit that as an exercise in CGI special effects it is impressive. A clear set of aesthetic priorities informs and drivesThe Matrix. Romeo Must Die, on the other hand, isn’t so clear about what kind of movie it is. It has tried to cherry pick elements from Hong Kong film making – the martial arts performer, the martial arts choreographer, the wire fu – but then tried to shove them into a hip hop soap opera without considering that they may have originated in a very different film culture.
Speaking generally, the kinetic takes pride of place in Hong Kong martial arts films and action scenes constitute an important strategy through which Hong Kong film makers build story lines, interpret characters, create mood and atmosphere, reveal moral truths as well as inspiring and exciting their audiences. Choreographed movement and carefully staged action are central to Hong Kong action films and, accordingly, many other elements in the films are shaped to accommodate set pieces of physical performance. New comers to the genre are often amazed at how long the fight scenes are, and how detailed and elaborate the staging is. They are also taken aback at the frequency of the action scenes, and the at times cursory use of dialogue and plotting almost as mere linking devices between fight scenes.
In Hong Kong martial arts films plots are often constructed around the fight scenes so that the action can predominate and live and breathe. American movies choose to explicate their narratives in very different ways, and dialogue is king. “Romeo Must Die‘s ‘failure’ to incorporate wirework seemed to lie precisely in its inability to negotiate a coherent ‘reality’ for its interfamilial / interracial crime drama and wired-up action.” (3) In Romeo Must Die, a mess of a film where CGI trickery jostles for predominance along-side that hip hop soap opera all the while flirting coyly (but non-comittally) with the use of an exotic martial arts performer, the Hip Hop Soap opera dominates the scrum in terms of telling the story of star crossed would-be lovers set against a gang war. CGI and kung fu are left to duke it out over who provides the light relief when the American film makers decide that the audience needs just a little break from all of the sighing and ponderous talking. As a martial arts film fan, my complaint is that the kung fu loses out.
(1) Corey Yuen also directed The Defender.
(2) The way the fight scenes are edited is also an element that undermines the showcasing of martial arts in this film “… any potential visceral impact is consistently undercut by the frantic and obtrusive editing” David West, Chasing Dragons, p. 247
(3) p. 180, Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt