I Know Hip-hop
At one point in this strange mishmash of high tech martial arts and oldschool feuding families, the two starcross’d leads Han (Jet Li) and Trish (Aaliyah) are trying to gain entrance into a trendy Oakland nightclub. Trish being the daughter of local gangster Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo), as well as being, you know, Aaliyah has instant cache. But her companion, hot on the trail of his brother’s murderer and fresh off the plane from Hong Kong, obviously doesn’t fit in. And so they come up with a disguise: Trish lends Han her baseball cap to wear backwards and pulls a lock of his hair to show through the front (gangsta meets our gang?). He smiles. “I know hip-hop,” he says, then tugs at his pants so they ride about a quarter of an inch lower than before, slumps his shoulders, and pushes his pelvis forward.
He knows hip-hop all right. Or rather, he knows what passes for hip-hop in mainstream movies, where it’s typically reduced to designer-label baggy pants and too-cool-for-school smirks. Despite its claim to marry hip-hop and martial arts (and excellent soundtrack, produced by Stanley Clarke and Timbaland), Romeo Must Die really doesn’t pay much attention to hip-hop, except as a means to get a young crossover crowd into theater seats. At the same time, however (and almost in spite of itself), the film acts out and explicitly frames some of the very politics that hip-hop tends to highlight (if not always constructively analyze or counter), having to do with racism and socioeceonomic power structures.
Consider, for instance, the cultural and financial geography imagined by Romeo Must Die. Its Oakland waterfront is “prime” real estate for a planned NFL stadium, but of the eight lots that will seal the deal, four are owned by blacks and four by Chinese. The film makes much visual hay out of the fact that the deal is being sealed and orchestrated by a white (maybe Jewish) guy named Roth (Edoardo Ballerini). Roth appears repeatedly assuming rich-white-guy attitudes, on the golf course (deriding Isaak for hitting his ball into a sandtrap) and in his tastefully appointed loft office (where a camera tracks him across its spaciousness, pausing to admire an expensive architectural model of the stadium). In other words, for all the violence wrought by the Chinese and black contingents (and there is a lot of it), the real power still resides with the usual suspect. (And it will be Isaak’s tragic error that he imagines he can muscle his way into an “owner’s box.”)
While this three-way raced dynamic fuels much U.S. penal rhetoric concerning the need for (urban) order and containment (a rhetoric that tends to blame victims), in Romeo Must Die, the dynamic is reframed. It’s not about gangs in the hood, but about families wanting to secure legacies. Han’s father, Mr. Sing (Henry O, known in Asia as Xi Reng Jiang) and Isaak battle one another for the biggest chunk of the waterfront-becoming-stadium-property pie, passing on their rage and frustration to their eager-to-please but never-loyal-enough children (not Han and Trish, who Fall In Love instead: more on that later) and untrustworthy underlings (who, of course, seek other options and pay dearly for their selfishness).
The film opens with a long shot following a fancy car into Oakland, with DMX’s blood-pounding lyrics: “Life is a lesson, and I am the teacher (What!?!).” And yes, lessons start coming fast and loud. Han’s brother Po (Jon Kit Lee) is introduced making trouble at a club owned by a gangsta named Silk (DMX, who appears briefly, wielding a large automatic weapon, not really teaching anyone anything). When Po is killed, Han hears about it back in Hong Kong (where he’s serving time due to some crime committed and ducked by his father). Han turns into Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, losing control in the cafeteria, he slams some guards in the face with his fried rice; he soon finds himself hanging in a cell surrounded by guards looking for revenge. What follows is a spectacular fight scene, with Han swinging on his chain and bouncing off the walls like he’s in Thunderdome.
After his unbelievable and inevitable escape, Han lands neatly in Oakland, where he promptly and neatly meets Trish, rebellious daughter, boutique owner, and stylish dresser (she’s always in midriff tops, no matter what the occasion: clubbing or chasing assassins). This meeting allows her to mistake Han for a cabdriver named Akbar, apparently so they can share several unfunny immigrant cabbie jokes, usually at the expense of her inept bodyguard Mo (Anthony Anderson). Han finds several reasons to show off his Jet Li moves: he spars playfully with his father’s Number 2, Kai (Russell Wong, of TV’s Vanishing Son) with a Naya water bottle as their prominent prop (a friend of mine noted that they could have been doing a Naya commercial, their bottle-holding poses are so well-framed and their smiles so on-cue). Or again, Han runs afoul of Isaak’s Number 2, a player unimaginatively named Mac (Isaiah Washington, a consistently charismatic performer with not nearly enough to do here), who challenges him to an informal football game in the park. At first Han doesn’t understand that when he has the ball everyone is supposed to hit him. Once he construes this detail, he kickboxes his way through the multi-manned black crew, whomping and kicking and punching each, as long as he’s got the ball in his hands. Han wins the game.
Han should also win the girl, but this the most troubled and troubling aspect of Romeo Must Die: it can’t figure out a way to make him a Romeo (except as one character briefly refers to him, thus presumably motivating the title) to Aaliyah’s Juliet. She’s burning charisma and Jet Li’s no slouch, but they barely come into physical contact, much less kiss. At film’s end, after they’ve lost family members to murder and suicide, and witnessed or caused the deaths and maimings of several worker bees, they literally walk off screen with arms barely around each other’s waists, looking for all the world like that “beautiful friendship” just starting at the end of Casablanca. What’s up with that?
It would seem that the film scripted by Eric (Surviving the Game) Bernt, based on Mitchell (The Whole Nine Yards) Kapner’s story, and directed by Lethal Weapon 4 cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak can’t quite imagine its way out of the “cultural boundaries” it establishes as its political framework. While warring Italian families might produce sexed-up, impetuous, and passionate children (think Olivia Hussey, Claire Danes, Leo before the big ship), the “kids” here are considerably more measured in their responses to the insanity around them. Granted, Jet Li is 35 years old and his Han is determinedly oldschool about codes of honor (and righteously furious at his father for turning “native” in the U.S., that is, becoming a fervent capitalist). And granted, Aaliyah is at 20 already a seasoned, self-aware performer (her first record, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, went platinum when she was 14), and the film presents Trish as level-headed and moralistic, not the type to jump into bed with just anyone, even if the screenplay (positioning her as a “Juliet”) would seem to ask for it.
But the more immediate problem is not the players or even the characters, but the perversely ahistorical “historical” situations the film envisions, the impassable rifts between cultures and races and nationalities. And, it’s possible that all of these rifts come back to gender expectations in a U.S.-made action film. It’s plain that anxieties about seemly or respectable masculinity are everywhere in Romeo Must Die (perhaps the title is a kind of edict to virtuous boy lovers: you gotta ball to survive these days). Kai is a ruthless mercenary with a nice ride, but the black men have the hugest weapons and make the biggest noises. Trish is willing to shoot down villains, but she’d rather not get into her dad’s lousy business (and her most “emotive” moments are spent in her childhood bedroom, amongst her stuffed animals). Her brother Colin (D.B. Woodside) wants so badly for his dad to treat him “like a man,” that he’s willing to betray his dad to get his attention. Mac, well, he’s a beautiful stone killer with major ambition and a grudge against Isaak (another father hang-up, in its unsubtle way). And Han, he’s such a gentleman that he can’t “hit a woman,” so when he has to take out a vicious woman biker (Francoise Yip, the brilliant Hong Kong action star), he has to use Trish’s body as a weapon: it’s dazzling choreography but lame gender politics.
If all of the above sound like racist stereotypes, that’s the point. Familiar by definition, they’re included here to appeal to that tried and true action-movie fanbase, the adolescent male viewers who supposedly “don’t know any better” (in fact, most of them do know better and frankly disdain the simplistic pap with which action films seem so enamored). But the stereotypes make the romance impossible. There’s no way that a Chinese guy can ride off into the sunset with a black woman and make it look convincing, despite Newsweek‘s recent article proclaiming that “Asian men” are “on a roll” (because, as good wage-earners and polite persons, they are now optimum objects of desire for white women in the U.S.), despite the fact that he’s someone as charismatic as Han or Jet Li. And this is the rub in a film that means to combine hip-hop and martial arts which, by rights and by Wutang dictates, should allow the most complex transformations and interactions of gender, nationality, and power. Romeo Must Die, by contrast, embraces the least innovative male roles in each, the tortured macho thug and the tortured honor-bound son, and finds itself unable to breathe.