Jet Li and Aaliyah, 2000’s Romeo and Juliet.
Photograph: Warner Bros.

On a March evening 21 years in the past, Hollywood’s newest riff on the Hong Kong motion film Romeo Should Die was having its crimson carpet premiere at Westwood’s Mann Village Theater. Shannon Lee, the daughter and solely surviving descendant of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, was there, together with Magic Johnson in a pigeon-blue pin-striped swimsuit, and Michael Clarke Duncan, glowing and grinning as a result of in a couple of days he would attend the Oscars as a first-time nominee for his efficiency in The Inexperienced Mile. Babyface, Warren G, and Timbaland have been in attendance too, as was Keanu Reeves, a 12 months faraway from The Matrix debut and Neo’s immediately iconic epiphany, “I know kung fu.” However heart stage have been two Hollywood newcomers: Chinese language-born Singaporean martial-artist extraordinaire Jet Li and pop sensation Aaliyah, the evening’s Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo Should Die accommodates the blueprint of a Shakespearean textual content chopped and screwed into a virtually unrecognizable object. The basic story of star-crossed lovers turns into a mobster film spiked with racial politics and creative ass-kicking. It’s not a lot of a romance, to be completely trustworthy, however as Han Sing and Trish O’Day, Li and Aaliyah are coy and funky. Sparks appear to fly anyway. Once I rewatched it 20 years after its premiere, courtesy of the Netflix algorithm’s resolution to resurface the movie for me throughout quarantine, I traveled again in time to an period when foolish, action-packed martial-arts films rode the American mainstream.

I’m a member of Romeo Should Die’s target market — of the age group for whom summer season trip meant watching MTV previous midnight, who had Aaliyah’s sophomore album One in a Million in everlasting rotation on our Walkmans. However greater than that, my dad and mom — an interracial couple — have been martial artists, and so kung fu films really feel like residence. Personally, I’m stunned on the ease with which collective reminiscence has failed Romeo Should Die, a movie that captured a Zeitgeist, nevertheless imperfectly. MTV host Ananda Lewis as soon as described it, gleefully, as “a perfect marriage of East and West” — “flying kicks, furious fights, vicious wars, and a bangin’ hip-hop soundtrack.” It was a abstract that mirrored sure reductive cultural shorthands fueling Hollywood: martial arts for Asians and hip-hop for Black People. However, the concept was scorching: Romeo Should Die linked Oakland to Hong Kong, staging impressively choreographed struggle scenes set to unique early-2000s bops. However the union was hardly the results of a shotgun marriage ceremony.

Jet Li and Aaliyah on the premiere of the 2000 film Romeo Should Die.
Photograph: Steve Granitz/WireImage

The historical past of hip-hop, borne out of the civil-rights motion, will be traced on a line parallel to the historical past of martial arts’ recognition within the West, which reached a peak when a number of Hong Kong imports debuted at No. 1 within the U.S. field workplace within the Nineteen Seventies. Bruce Lee’s posthumous opus Enter the Dragon cemented the martial artist’s legendary standing in ’73; right here was the uncommon nonwhite main man who exuded anti-Institution vitality. Whereas mainstream (white) audiences grew uninterested in the style by mid-decade, younger folks of shade didn’t transfer on so simply. Quickly, Blaxploitation films like Black Belt Jones (1974) and Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975) offered Black martial artists like Jim Kelly preventing with incomparable swagger. Within the ’80s, Occasions Sq. theater house owners turned to low-cost packages of kung fu films (and pornos), whereas Drive-In Film, an ’80s cable program, aired kung fu films each Saturday. That program was, based on Joseph Schloss, at the very least partially answerable for a technology’s interest in martial arts: “Pretty much every single hip-hop artist that I’ve met from that era used to watch that show religiously.” The affect of kung fu films on hip-hop isn’t unique to artists like Wu-Tang Clan, both: Take into account how martial arts strikes inform the artwork of breakdancing; the TV sequence Kung Fake, which recuts and redubs previous kung fu films; even Kendrick Lamar makes use of a moniker, Kung Fu Kenny, that throws again to hip-hop’s roots in shaolin.

By the ’90s, following within the footsteps of Wild Type (1982), films like Above the Rim (1994), New Jack Metropolis (1991), Boyz n the Hood (1991), Juice (1992), and Menace II Society (1993) have been recurrently reflecting hip-hop itself on the large display. On the similar time, Hollywood was courting expertise from a thriving Hong Kong movie {industry}. John Woo made his American debut in 1993, directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Exhausting Goal, and in 1995 Rumble within the Bronx turned the primary Jackie Chan film to obtain vast theatrical launch in North America. By 1997, Michelle Yeoh was making her American debut as the primary Asian Bond woman in Tomorrow By no means Dies (1997), and Chow Yun-fat had nabbed the lead function as a contract killer with a conscience in Antoine Fuqua’s first characteristic, The Alternative Killers (1998). That 12 months, Li made his American debut because the dangerous man within the Joel Silver–produced Deadly Weapon 4 (1998). Then there was The Matrix, additionally produced by Silver, which revolutionized the Western struggle scene with the assistance of Hong Kong choreographer and wire-stunt specialist Yuen Woo-ping.

A part of what made Hong Kong motion cinema so interesting to producers like Silver was its fascination with prison worlds and the authorities tasked with infiltrating them. Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour (1998) had already positioned Hong Kong–type motion alongside Black comedy, pairing Jackie Chan with beloved Friday comic Chris Tucker. Romeo Should Die was Silver’s try to capitalize on what had not too long ago proved to be a bankable thought. “We loved Jet, and we were trying to figure out what to do with him,” explains Romeo Should Die director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who labored because the cinematographer on Deadly Weapon 4. “[Joel] wanted to make a movie with mixed race [protagonists] and in the process of casting and writing the script we created a new genre — the ‘hip-hop kung fu’ movie.”

At this level Li’s English expertise have been “nonexistent,” Bartkowiak notes. “We needed to pull off a story that didn’t depend on language, but on the circumstances of characters whose situations were parallel,” explains Eric Bernt, one in all two Romeo Should Die screenwriters. A Shakespearean adaptation made sense — a narrative like Romeo and Juliet could be well-known and will simply be up to date to attraction to trendy audiences. (Baz Luhrmann took the same strategy 4 years earlier with Romeo + Juliet, whereas Tim Blake Nelson would go on to make 2001’s O.) The casting workforce turned to each Black Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema for its Capulet and Montague household stand-ins. Spike Lee regulars Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington have been tapped as O’Day patriarch Isaak and his scheming No. 2 Mac, respectively; a fresh-faced Anthony Anderson got here on as comic-relief punching bag Maurice; with Russell Wong as a strapping Sing henchman and “final boss” named Kai, and rapper DMX, who would go on to make two extra “kung fu hip-hop” films with Bartkowiak and Silver, as nightclub proprietor, Silk. Romeo Should Die was electrical in its casting of Black and Asian actors in all main roles.

The plot ran like this: Our Juliet, now Trish, and our Romeo, now Han, discover widespread floor in a shared skepticism of their respective prison households, each concerned in a scheme to purchase up properties on the Oakland waterfront. The proprietor of a document retailer within the metropolis, Trish retains her distance from the household enterprise. In the meantime Han, a former Hong Kong cop who’s taken the autumn for his father’s misdeeds and gone to jail, breaks out and travels to California to throw himself in the midst of all of it once more. When his brother, Po, is discovered lifeless, Han learns that the final particular person he tried to contact was Trish’s brother, Colin, which leads our protagonists to unite in seek for the reality.

The primary act of Romeo Should Die performs out principally as a showcase for Li and his footwork. After a brawl in a nightclub kicks off the film in the identical means that Romeo & Juliet begins with a struggle on the streets of Verona, we first meet Han in a jail cell, the place he knocks out a number of guards whereas hanging the wrong way up in a straitjacket, his accuracy godlike as he bounces a set of keys to his restraints immediately into his hand. Li is neither ridiculously muscular nor significantly intimidating — his actions have a modern, vulpine high quality that give him a solemn, devil-may-care presence, so the thugs and henchmen in Romeo Should Die underestimate him. Later, when Anthony Anderson’s Maurice prepares to put out Han in an altercation — taunting him as “Dim Sum” — the antagonist is shocked when he’s compelled to crawl away in his boxers. In a single deliciously absurd scene, Han joins a soccer recreation towards a hefty group of O’Day minions, who vengefully pile on their rival. However when Han will get the cling of it, he artfully brings down his opponents with a couple of twisting somersaults and leaping scissor-kicks.

Corey Yeun, the famend Hong Kong director and choreographer, signed on to direct Romeo’s struggle scenes. From the attitude of immediately’s CGI-saturated filmmaking, Romeo’s particular results and stunt work appear kitschy, but it surely’s the movie’s flagrant dismissal of realism that I discover so pleasant. Based on Bartkowiak, it was Li’s thought to include X-ray imaginative and prescient into the struggle scenes. In reality, he says Silver invested a few of his producing payment into making it occur. (Take into account the price of such novel know-how on the movie’s slim $25 million finances.) When Han lands a decisive blow on Kai’s head within the flame-drenched finale, the digicam rushes ahead, exalting his shattered backbone with scientific precision.

The fights are superb. However immediately, I can’t consider Romeo Should Die with out considering of Aaliyah and her catchy Grammy-nominated single “Try Again,” the lead single on the film’s soundtrack, her whispered, sultry vocals overlaying its propulsive synth. The modern futurism of the music video — the way it flaunts Jet Li’s strikes, mirrored in a corridor of mirrors, and lingers on Aaliyah as she struts round in leather-based low-riders. Bartkowiak remembers Warner Brothers eyeing Janet Jackson for the function of Trish O’Day, however when Aaliyah emerged as a chance, she was the one actress invited to do a display take a look at. “There was an innocence to her and a street to her … she was a badass but also capable of being vulnerable,” describes Bernt. Few Black feminine artists on the time had so efficiently broached the mainstream; shades of Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard appeared to paint Aaliyah’s Hollywood breakthrough, and with it the promise of comparable superstardom. Casting director Lora Kennedy remembers how naturally Aaliyah slipped into character: “She just blew us away. We were overwhelmingly devastated when she passed away. We’d all been there at the start and had such big plans for her.”

Films that includes interracial {couples} clearly existed earlier than Romeo Should Die, however those who paired Black and Asian characters have been few and infrequently independently financed; take into account Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, Timothy Chey’s Fakin Da’ Funk, or Chi Muoi Lo’s Catfish in Black Bean Sauce. Han and Trish’s most intimate moments are principally wordless episodes, the simplest being a struggle scene towards a mysterious biker lady with kung fu expertise of her personal. As a result of Han “can’t hit a girl,” he makes use of Trish’s physique to fend off his opponent, gripping her legs and arms in a extra provocative method than any deliberately romantic scene between them. In any other case, their romance is blinkered, with Han’s masculinity getting the quick finish of the stick. In a single scene Trish takes Han to the membership on a fact-finding mission and leads him to the dance flooring in a daring show of affection. Aaliyah’s “Are You Feelin’ Me?” (“Boy are you feelin’ me?/ Cause I’m feelin’ you”) bumps within the background, however the track’s lyrics are extra suggestive than the couple’s PG-rated dance strikes — Trish operating circles round Han swaying like a clumsy teenager. It’s clear that Romeo Should Die isn’t truly a romance, a lot because it’s a showcase for Aaliyah and Li, symbols of subcultures Hollywood felt it might mine.

Within the movie’s closing scene, our Romeo and Juliet don’t die, however they don’t kiss both. Based on The Slanted Display screen, a 2006 documentary about representations of Asian masculinity in Hollywood, each prospects — an embrace with a kiss and with out one — have been shot, however the kiss examined poorly with audiences. Maybe this was inevitable for a film about Black and Asian gangsters that had no voices of shade in writing and producing roles, a film that sees Black and Asian folks by the shallow focus of their respective subcultures. Certainly, many scenes in Romeo left me flummoxed: A flashback reveals Han and Po as youngsters, escaping from mainland China to Hong Kong utilizing a basketball as a flotation gadget. Po’s physique is later discovered hanging from a phone pole as if he have been lynched. Collectively, these scenes learn an terrible lot like half-baked efforts to gesture at symbols and traumas of the Black expertise, a gathering of distinct identities as hack and disjointed because the ambient rating of bamboo flute instrumentals atop funky hip-hop beats.

But traces of what made the kung fu films of yore such treasured objects of empowerment are additionally current right here — within the ingenuity and charm with which Han evades his opponents, the fierce independence and unpretentious knowledge of Trish. Bernt sees the ethical dilemma tearing aside every household as basic to the movie’s politics: “Do you seek to join or partner with white people or do you rule the streets from your own fiefdom?” Patriarch O’Day yearns to “go legit” within the type of an possession stake in an NFL workforce his white enterprise associate intends to purchase. “I really think it’s time the NFL had a Black owner,” he says, when he opts as a substitute at hand the payout again. Mac, Isaak’s second in command, seems to be the dangerous man, but his basic mistrust of the sniveling enterprise associate, who rolls his eyes when Isaak proposes a partnership, feels justified. “Going legit” could very effectively take a toll on a person’s dignity.

Romeo Should Die finally grossed $91 million, debuting at No. 2 on the U.S. field workplace, behind Erin Brockovich. Aaliyah and Li each obtained reward for his or her performances, as did the soundtrack, however the movie as an entire fared worse with critics; the New York Times referred to the union between hip-hop and kung fu as “a relatively chaste marriage.” Like many movies of its time, it plumbed Asian and Black subcultures with none outright aim of accelerating illustration onscreen. “Frankly, I don’t think I ever approached my work with an agenda,” Kennedy explains. “[At Warner Brothers] we wanted to make movies that showed different cultures because we had to mix things up. We couldn’t just have all these white men. We had to make it more interesting, but there was never a political mandate.” Perhaps that’s why the “hip-hop kung fu movie” is finest remembered as a short-lived fancy moderately than the palpable cultural phenomenon it felt wish to an adolescent me.

From 2000 onward, moviegoers have been freshly enamored with the martial-arts choices of Li and Jackie Chan, with unique historic epics (The Final Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha), and with the magic of wuxia movies (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), but in some ways, these investments have pale out of the mainstream. Maybe for good motive. So lots of the movies of this period are riddled with cultural inaccuracies, racial biases, and the overrepresentation of white creatives above and under the road. But in a up to date panorama that repeatedly approaches cultural variety in cinematic storytelling by exploiting the traumas of individuals of shade, or by assembly superficial markers of illustration, there’s one thing concerning the intrepid and unhinged silliness of a film like Romeo Should Die — a film that didn’t care to impart a profound, industry-approved sociopolitical message — that feels missing immediately. When requested if this form of martial-arts film will ever make a comeback in Hollywood, Bartkowiak hesitates: “I don’t know. Everything goes through cycles and phases. I want to believe it will come back.”

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