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Prepare for Landing

The appropriately named Jet Li may prove Americans are finally primed for Far East mayhem

Is America ready for the Hong Kong action style? Certainly there are many fans of the balletic, guns-and-martial-arts, fly-through-the-air movies that have inspired the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers. And yet Hollywood still seems to have trouble marketing the concept. Yes, John Woo gets high-profile projects, but the only time he has actually got to work with a legitimate martial artist (if you can call him that) was with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target. And poor Chow Yun-Fat has been stuck in lukewarm buddy pics with Mira Sorvino and Mark Wahlberg. Jackie Chan's Rush Hour did a little better at the box office, but it was primarily a Chris Tucker movie; the Miramax rereleases of Chan's earlier films have made progressively less and less money, possibly because stateside audiences aren't used to action films that are quite so comedic, and relatively bloodless.

But things have been looking up recently. With the smash success of The Matrix last year, audiences proved able to accept Hong Kong-style wire work in action scenes, when given a sci-fi explanation for how it could plausibly happen. And in Lethal Weapon 4, Joel Silver (also producer of The Matrix) brought in Hong Kong star Jet Li to fill the relatively thankless role of the villain opposite Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci and Chris Rock. Equipped with limited English skills, Li not only gave his character a silent grace, but also administered a serious ass-whipping to Gibson. Unlike the quirkier Chan, this was a guy Americans could figure out with ease.

Now, finally, the studios have done it right. Romeo Must Diemay not have the best script in the world, but it brings Jet Li to the big screen in a way that all action junkies will appreciate. There's wire stunts aplenty here, in utter defiance of the laws of physics -- Li and costar Russell Wong leap into the air and then twist from side to side to take out foes all around them -- but at this point we've been conditioned by The Matrix and numerous fantasy martial-arts video games to accept it. And in the "how can we top The Matrix" contest, there's one ultracool effect guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet: At key moments during certain fights, the image suddenly switches to X ray, and we get to see the bone break, or the heart get impaled, or what have you, from inside the body at the moment of impact.

Jet Li: Not afraid to get his ass kicked on screen.
Warner Bros.
Jet Li: Not afraid to get his ass kicked on screen.

The story is archetypal Hong Kong, and bears resemblance to Rush Hour on several points. Two rival gangs, one Chinese and one African-American, are engaged in a truce as they try to make a deal that will sell all their valuable waterfront territories to a major developer, giving both gangs enough of a paycheck to go legit once the negotiations are through. Naturally, it's not gonna be that simple; unknown forces within the gangs are conspiring to break the truce, notably by lynching the spoiled son of the top Chinese gang lord. When news of the son's death reaches Hong Kong, the trouble really begins. See, the Chinese gang lord has another son. And guess who it happens to be?

The moment of revelation is priceless. First we see Hong Kong, then the prison, then a long row of inmates in gray uniforms, seated in a cafeteria. Pan over to one prisoner: Jet Li, who immediately stands up, eyes brimming with sorrow, as he reads the news. As the guards force him to sit down, he clobbers them with his steel dinner plate, only to get beaten down like Rodney King. Already we have learned from this scene that: 1) Jet Li can convey more with his eyes, without speaking, than most American action heroes can with their entire bodies; and 2) Unlike, say, Steven Seagal, Li is willing to get his ass kicked on screen.

Before long, Li is hanging upside down in handcuffs, surrounded by six of the guards who beat him up. Six dead guards later, Li has unlocked the cell door with his mouth and escaped to the United States, where he crosses paths with Trish O'Day (R&B star Aaliyah), the rebellious daughter of his father's archrival, Isaak (Delroy Lindo). Trish initially mistakes him for a cab driver and enlists his aid in escaping from her gang-assigned bodyguard Maurice (Anthony Anderson, of TV's Hang Time), whom she dubs "Moron." Although their chance meeting is amicable, it doesn't seem that they'll have any reason to see each other again, at least until Li discovers that his brother's last phone call on earth was made to the store where she works.

Li, who apparently wasn't able to speak English very well when he did Lethal Weapon 4, has since picked it up quickly. Judging by his delivery here, he'd make a more convincing American than a certain Austrian muscleman or Belgian kickboxer. Not that the dialogue actually, you know, matters, but it helps him get to a level of emotional truth that the mere act of breaking stuff alone wouldn't achieve.

As the costar, Aaliyah makes a capable acting debut, although she has about one too many scenes that seem calculated to prove she can cry on cue. Less crying, less talking, more kicking, if you please. With Li's help, she actually proves fairly adept at that last skill, in a scene in which they must fight a female assassin, and Li tells her that he can't hit a woman. The solution? Manipulate Aaliyah like a kung fu puppet. Those expecting much of a romance may be disappointed: In spite of the title, which seemingly references Romeo and Juliet (since none of the characters herein are named or even nicknamed Romeo), this is Hollywood, and we still don't do interracial kisses unless it's in an art-house flick.

Veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Speed) makes an impressive feature directing debut. His one misstep, however, is the excessive number of quick cuts during many of the martial arts scenes. Li is fast enough that it becomes difficult to follow the action if the camera and editing are being maneuvered with equal speed. Thankfully, the final battle is more simply shot, even featuring the occasional use of slo-mo. Will this movie make Jet Li a Hollywood star? It's hard to say. But as a solo showcase, and a better-than-average actioner, it stands a better chance than either Rush Hour or The Corruptor did for their respective Eastern leads.

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