Romeo Must Die (2000)


By Jonathan Beller

Multicultural Depression (Kills)

Andrzej Bartkowiak’s current film Romeo Must Die, which features the incredible martial arts skills of Jet Li, left me a little depressed. Even with its gorgeous beginning in which a $100,000 Mercedes Benz works its way through the nighttime streets of Oakland, reflecting neon images of the city off of its gleaming paint, the film brought me down. The Benz cruises through Oakland in a trippy, jump-cut, visual track, leaving light-trails, reflections and image-ghosts on the celluloid as it precisely cuts its path through the city. It is accompanied by a blood-pumping charged-up hip-hop sound track and shots of strong hands inside the car skillfully loading high-powered weapons. Very pretty. But despite some thrilling gunplay, a soundtrack to keep you jumping, some fantastically choreographed fight scenes, and x-ray vision special effects which showed how he who knows how to kill sees and breaks bodies, the whole kill-fest thing left me a little sad.

I couldn’t help thinking, “That’s it, that’s the way it is.” Romeo Must Die, for all its big guns, bad asses and mean fighting, is an example of contemporary realism — an expression of a society in which self-realization depends upon precise calculation, brutality, and killing driven by money.

Those who take an interest in race war may find this film particularly exciting. It seems that Oakland’s waterfront, at least for the purposes of this film, is controlled by two rival groups, one Chinese and the other African American. These antagonistic groups must put their rivalries aside to generate a real estate package for white businessmen who want to build an NFL stadium in the harbor. In an apt image of the global economy, Chinese and African American crime syndicates must do the dirty work of terrorism, land-grabbing, and coercion in order to do business with the moneyed white people. For everything to be on the legal up and up, a lot of muscle and gunfire must be expended first. Each national/ethnic community must do the hard and nasty work of policing, beating, and if necessary killing its own members in order that its leaders can profit from its association with the American nation, or rather, the National Football League.

The picture is complicated when Po, the son of the leader of the Chinese syndicate, is killed. Upon hearing of the murder, Po’s brother, Jet Li’s character, Han (an ex-cop doing time for his father in a Hong Kong prison), escapes and makes his way to Oakland. Han, ruled by higher principles, must intervene in the escalating tensions between the Chinese and the African Americans to find out who killed his brother. Along the way he meets Trish (Aaliyah), daughter of the leader (Delroy Lindo) of the African American gang, and their ensuing interracial romance is posited as the solution to the racial violence the audience is paying to enjoy. Love is the answer to violence, but violence is the main attraction. One might be tempted to conclude from this Romeo and Juliet set-up that violence is better than sex, but that conclusion would be wrong: In Romeo Must Die, violence is the sex.

Where violence and sex mingle on screen, masculinity is being negotiated. Romeo Must Die willingly exploits cliches of black and Asian manhood. Asian men are disciplined, controlled, and unemotional, while Black men are boisterous and sports-loving. To be fair, in Romeo Must Die, white men are smug and nerdy, and relegated to the background, but three cliches don’t make a right. Overall, this Bay Area West Side Story suggests that Asian masculinity is ascendant, but that Asian chic must be accessorized with Black fashion and rap music. That’s a version of multiculturalism, I suppose.

Still, Hollywood prevails uber alles and Jet Li, the male Asian lead, cannot kiss Aaliyah, the female African American lead in the grand finale. This small detail bears out the general point: money, inflected by whiteness, structures the film’s narrative as well as its aspirations to produce masculinity. As Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to Romeo Must Die, the white world is to the racialized world, nothing less than the over-determining precondition of its existence as such. The drama is underpinned by white ownership and power. Somehow, all the fighting over money and real estate, shot through with racism, greed, and retro ideas about who can kiss whom and who cannot, all packaged to look like media-fun, made me more than a little disconsolate as I wondered about how to pay the rent here in Silicon Valley.

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