A car drives through a bridge and dark city streets, passing the freeway sign “East Bay Bridge, Oakland” on the way. A blasting hip-hop soundtrack accompanies opening film credits in overlapping English and Chinese characters. Next, African American and Chinese gangsters fight with fists and guns on a dance floor in a hip-hop club named Casino, owned by Silkk none other than rapper DMX. This ambitious, fast-paced, and expensive U.S. flick starring Hong Kong martial arts superstar Jet Li and introducing r&b vocalist Aaliyah in her first movie role, blends together Hong Kong martial arts and hard-core hip-hop. While martial arts have been mixed with black film comedy in the film Rush Hour with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, and the CBS series Martial Law with Sammo Hung and Arsenio Hall, the martial arts/hip-hop combination is relatively new.
In this somewhat unlikely story, African American and Chinese criminal families vie for control of Oakland, California waterfront. Han (Jet Li), a former cop, has languished in a Hong Kong prison for letting his mob warlord father Ch’u Sing (Henry O) and little brother Po (Jon Kit Lee) escape to Oakland. When Po is murdered after a standoff with the black gangsters, Han breaks out of jail, after fighting off an army of guards while chained and hanging upside down from the prison sealing, comes to the U.S. to avenge Po’s death, and of course immediately runs into Trish (Aaliyah), daughter of the black gang leader Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). Trish runs her own hip-hop boutique, Serpentine Fire, and wants nothing to do with her father, but becomes involved when it turns out that immediately before his death, Po called her store. In a vague remake of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Han and Trish get caught up in their families’ feud.
Romeo Must Die creates a world which is inhabited almost exclusively by African Americans and Chinese characters, most of them capable of treachery and deceit, and in which white people’s money is the root of all evil. The two warring families pressure Oakland inhabitants to sell their businesses in order to resell the land to white gangsters (looking to build an NFL stadium there), and in the film’s finale, whip out superpowerful automatic weapons. In this fantastic interpretation of actual conditions in U.S. inner cities, white people are almost never physically present, but their money gives black and Chinese gangs a reason to destroy each other and thus incites the violence that wreaks havoc with the main characters’ lives.
The settings, the fights, and the humor in the film emphasize the contrast between African American and Chinese cultures. In fact, in the absence of other references and representations, African American styles of dress and music stand for the whole of mainstream U.S. youth culture. Between Ch’u's house full of Chinese antique art, and Silkk’s club and Trish’s boutique, the film sets up a visual contrast between “traditional” Chinese and “modern” African American worlds. When Trish takes Han to Casino to investigate Po’s death, Han tries to pass as a hip-hop fan. He takes out chewing gum, Trish turns his baseball cap backwards, and he pulls his pants lower on his hips, adding authoritatively, “I know hip-hop.”
In action sequences, these cultural differences inspire clever visual solutions. Because the film needs constantly to explain why Han keeps fighting his black opponents with bare hands instead of simply being shot and killed as he would in real Oakland, most fights, besides relying on wire-enhanced special effects, contain elements of humor. Han uses his marshal arts training to win his first ever football game with the black mob’s second-in-command Mac (Isaiah Washington), Trish’s bodyguard Maurice (Anthony Anderson of the sitcom Hang Time), and their fellow O’Day employees. Even when he is in real danger, Han manages to use a fire hose to fight off firearms. In contrast, Han’s fights with his father’s right hand Kai (Russell Wong) are shot in a traditional style reminiscent of Jet Li’s Hong Kong films. In the final fight between them, enacted in Ch’u's “Chinese” house according to a familiar script, Han is nearly defeated, but then makes a spectacular comeback.
While this basic culture clash provides material for some of the funniest and visually ingenuous moments, the film passes over an opportunity to make subtler comments about racial and ethnic conflicts in the contemporary U.S. To convey some sense of gangsta realness would have been in keeping with the hip-hop tradition. Instead, Romeo follows Hong Kong action genre rules, where athletic moves take precedence over authenticity in settings or situations. Filmed in Vancouver, Canada, it reveals little about real Oakland one of the most culturally and socially explosive scenes in the U.S., including a vibrant hip-hop underground, indicated in Poetic Justice (John Singleton 1993), and a revolutionary Black Power past, depicted in Panther (Mario Van Peebles 1995). And surely, the labor force of the Oakland waterfront is more ethnically diverse than the few Chinese, Chinese-American, and African-American workers who briefly show up in the movie, only when they are already dead, or about to be beaten, or blown up.
Romeo Must Die‘s blockbuster aspirations might help explain the fact that it barely touches upon the actual life and culture of African-American and Chinese-American neighborhoods. Judging from press releases, Warner Bros. producer Joel Silver, slated Romeo Must Die the first U.S. production starring Jet Li to reproduce the success of The Matrix, as well as to capitalize on Li’s performance as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4, both produced by Silver. Romeo Must Die thus targets the “general” U.S. audience which propelled The Matrix and Lethal Weapon 4 to their blockbuster status. This audience, demographically wider than the existing constituency for hip-hop and martial arts films, includes wealthier and older suburban white viewers, likely unaware of the long-standing traditions behind Romeo‘s genre mix. Romeo needs to appeal to this wider audience and at the same time not to alienate the fans Li told Newsweek that Silver based his crossover story and casting strategy on research following Lethal Weapon 4, which, not surprisingly, showed that urban rap fans also liked Li’s movies.
But even if Romeo Must Die makes money and judging from the first box office returns, it will Warner Bros. needs to make another baby step toward cultural specificity and actually film some scenes of its next hip-hop martial arts movie in Oakland or South Central L.A. It is the least the producers can do to keep their core urban audience, which inspires and sustains the more innovative aspects of this new hybrid genre.