There are very few films best remembered for the cultural impact they could have made. Romeo Must Die is one of them.
A retelling of Romeo and Juliet that cuts the romance, a North American showcase for a martial artist whose fight scenes would be computer-enhanced, and a breakout role for a charismatic singer whose life would be cut tragically short, disparate talents came together the summer of 1999 to tell a story of love and rivalry between Black and Asian gangs—and they came together in Vancouver.
Romeo Must Die was the directorial debut of Andrzej Bartkowiak, a director of photography on Hollywood blockbusters such as Speed and Lethal Weapon 4. The latter featured Jet Li in his first American role. Born Li Lianjie, Li was a Wushu champion who found success in Hong Kong martial arts films such as the Once Upon a Time in China series. Legend has it Li was so fast filmmakers demanded he slow down his movements so the camera could catch them.
Romeo Must Die was engineered as a star vehicle that would highlight Li’s incredible athleticism, while minimizing his lines. Screenwriter Eric Bernt told Vulture, “We needed to pull off a story that didn’t depend on language, but on the circumstances of characters whose situations were parallel.” A gangster film, nominally based on Romeo and Juliet, with martial arts fight scenes and a hip-hop soundtrack, would provide dynamic roles for Black and Asian actors, without relying on Shakespearean dialogue.
The film centers the rivalry between the O’Day and Sing families, struggling for the upper hand in a waterfront real estate scheme, alongside a developing relationship between Trish O’Day (Aaliyah) and Han Sing (Li). The daughter of crime boss Izaak O’Day, Trish runs a trendy boutique called Serpentine (shot on location in Gastown). Familiar with her father’s world, yet rejecting its limitations on women, Trish possesses both sensitivity and a worldly cool.
Trish’s character owes much to the actor playing her. Aaliyah Dana Haughton had been a chart-topping singer since the age of 15; at 21, with several hit music videos under her belt, she was the epitome of hip-hop style.
When Han breaks out of Hsing Kang prison (Riverview Hospital’s Crease Clinic) and comes to Oakland looking for the killer of his brother, he soon suspects O’Day’s lieutenants, Maurice and Mac, played by Anthony Anderson and Isaiah Washington. After altercations between Han and the Oakland gangsters, including a football game-turned-melee (shot at East Van’s Woodland Park), Trish agrees to help Han find answers.
When a mysterious woman on a motorcycle (played by Vancouver actress François Yip) attempts to kill Trish and Han, the ensuing chase bends local geography, beginning on Garden Avenue in North Vancouver, ending in Marpole near 75th Ave. Han, whose code of honour prevents him from hitting a woman, solves this dilemma by swinging Trish around, using her body to counterattack. This silly and fun scene abruptly ends with the biker impaled on a piece of rebar.
The fight scenes, supervised by Cory Yuen (The Transporter) rely on humor, novelty, and a budget version of the “wire fu” popularized by The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. X-ray shots show the interior damage of a punctured lung or broken bone. Critical mileage varies on Romeo’s action scenes. Roger Ebert found Li’s fighting “so clearly computer-aided that his moves are about as impressive as Bugs Bunny,” while Beatrice Loayza writes, “It’s the film’s flagrant dismissal of realism that I found so delightful.”
The killer is revealed to be Han’s father Ch’u Sing (Henry O.). After a fight with Ch’u’s henchman Kai (Russell Wong) filmed at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Han shames Ch’u into suicide. Leaving the Sing stronghold in flames, he gives a chaste embrace to Trish before the fade-out. If that ending falls flat, as if something is missing, there’s a reason.
“The original ending of the film had Jet Li kissing Aaliyah,” says Gene Cajayon in the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen. “And they tested it with an urban audience. And the urban audience didn’t like it. It tested so poorly the studio changed it so that there’s no romantic attraction. This is Romeo and Juliet!”
Critics have noted the lack of romance in the film. “Mainstream America, for the most part, is uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light,” Cajayon says. Ebert writes that “No great romantic chemistry is generated … and there is something odd about a martial arts warrior hiding behind a girl’s bedroom door so her daddy won’t catch him.” Loayza argues that “it’s clear that Romeo Must Die isn’t actually a romance, so much as it’s a showcase for Aaliyah and Li, symbols of subcultures Hollywood felt it could mine.”
While a modest hit, today the film is best known for its soundtrack featuring Aaliyah’s Grammy-nominated song “Try Again.” Produced by Timbaland, the song spent 32 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, peaking at number one. The music video, featuring Li, won two MTV Movie Awards. After a long absence from streaming services, in September 2021 Aaliyah’s music, including the RMD soundtrack, was re-released on iTunes and similar platforms.
The film is notable in casting Black and Asian actors in virtually every role. Delroy Lindo, a brilliant actor known for his work with Spike Lee, plays Isaak O’Day as a man who’d rather run a sports team than a criminal empire. Russell Wong, who plays Kai, previously starred in Vanishing Son, one of the first American TV series with an Asian lead. The most notable supporting actor is rapper DMX, who plays casino owner Silk. DMX, who died in 2021, would star in two of Bartkowiak’s subsequent films, Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 the Grave (with Li). He also contributes to the soundtrack.
Aaliyah would shoot scenes for Queen of the Damned before dying in an airplane crash at the age of 22. Years later, while in Vancouver shooting War, Li reminisced about Romeo and his costar. “I have some memories of this very beautiful city … but it still makes me think about Aaliyah … She was such a talented girl and some locations when you pass by every day, you still think about her.” Aaliyah’s hairstylist Eric Ferrell remembers the star intervening when an unnamed costar made homophobic remarks on the Romeo set: “She set him straight and made him apologize in front of the entire crew.”
Vancouver isn’t Oakland, and Romeo Must Die isn’t Romeo and Juliet—or even Romeo + Juliet. While advertised as a kung fu hip-hop West Side Story, Romeo sidelined romance and athleticism for comedy and wirework. Yet it features compelling performances, entertaining action scenes, and gorgeous location shots of late nineties Vancouver. If Romeo Must Die is less than the sum of its parts, those parts are still glorious.
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