It was back around 1990 that Hong Kong cinema restored my faith in the movies. While Almodovar, Greenaway, and Jodorowsky were hitting peaks, the wild and enthusiastic movies of this city-nation reminded me why I love films in the first place.
Jackie Chan has long been the first name in HK cinema, but I’ve rarely been excited about his films. While laboring for months over his action scenes, he seems to improvise the rest of a movie over a weekend. This lack of focus on the big picture has resulted in one great (“Drunken Master II”) and one really good film (“Supercop”) out of something like fifteen films over the last ten years.
For me, the joy and the expectations focused mostly on two people: Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li. Chan fans will often hurl the same arguments of why Jet is inferior to Chan:
Jet sometimes uses stuntmen.
Jet often uses wires.
Jet doesn’t always originate his own projects.
Guess what, kids! Your average Jet Li film is a LOT better than your average Jackie Chan film. A little more time is spent on things like story and acting. Too often, Chan exhibits all the subtlety of Robert Benigni. Jet, on the other hand, has SOUL (though not nearly as much as icon Chow Yun-Fat).
Everyone I knew got a taste of these films. In San Francisco it was easy with all the screenings at the various repertory houses. Despite gaining popularity, the whole genre was still this exotic, personal thing to me. I got so into the aura of Chow that I had his name and image tattooed down the length of my lower-right leg. I foolishly thought, “Ah, he’ll never come to America.”
Man, was I wrong. Due to the impending takeover of HK by the Chinese mainland, a near mass-exodus to Los Angeles occurred that hadn’t been seen since the mad rush out of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.I suppose I should have taken a hint from director John Woo’s incursion into Hollywood. Little did I know that Chow Yun-Fat was in the process of moving to Los Angeles even as I was under the needle. Something like three months after the tattoo was completed, I literally ran into Chow and Woo at a movie premiere.
Unfortunately, that was a while ago. It seems that when most of the superstar actors or directors of Hong Kong make their start in Hollywood, they have to run through some gauntlet of crap until the usually unenlightened Americans can figure out what to do with them. Some stick it out. Some head back across the Pacific. Woo found his niche as the world’s greatest director of action films, right where he belongs. Chow has yet to catch on with the masses, or find the right project suited to his many talents.
Now it’s Jet Li’s turn to suffer the gauntlet. Sadly, it didn’t have to be this way.
A couple of years ago, there were a couple of other Jet Li fans who wanted the man to work his magic in their next film. Their names were Andy and Larry Wachowski and the film was “The Matrix”. Budget and schedule denied the pairing, but the Wachowski brothers did do two things. First, they hired Jet’s long time fight choreographer, Woo-ping Yuen to train the cast and design their fight scenes. Second, they introduced Jet to “Matrix” producer Joel Silver. Silver in turn hired Jet as the villain in the last “Lethal Weapon” film and produced the film I’m supposed to talk about, “Romeo Must Die”.
Jet plays Han Sing, a former Hong Kong cop, now in prison. He took the rap for his criminal brother, Po (Jon Kit Lee) who promptly skipped town with their crimelord father, Ch’u (Henry O), for America. The pair quickly set up shop in Oakland, California where their new gang is in tense competition with a black gang led by Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). When Po turns up murdered one morning, Han breaks out of jail in time for the funeral, hell-bent on finding his brother’s killer. Along the way he gets mixed up with Isaak’s daughter, Trish (Aaliyah). Love, double-crosses, and some crazy Kung Fu action ensue.
The fight scenes, as expected, are amazing. There are some problems. Aside from Han and Trish, the movie is a bit shy of sympathetic characters. Also as expected, director Andrzej Bartkowiak and at least three screenwriters limit Li’s amount of speech and beef up the dialogue for everyone else. Everyone else seems to spend their time stabbing each other in the back and talking smack. That and the racial slurs can grate on your nerves, once in a while. The romance doesn’t work so well as the filmmakers didn’t properly match the script to Li’s standard persona, which is a tortured, lonely outsider who takes down the system, smokes, and never seems to get laid.
Still, this film ought to do well with an audience that doesn’t want or expect more than a lot of Kung Fu and a hip-hop soundtrack. It’s difficult to comprehend what “The Matrix” would have been like with Li, who can effortlessly do in wire fighting what the cast spent six months in training to do convincingly. I wouldn’t rule out Li in the sequels or some other Wachowski brothers’ project. One Li is actually paired with a team that really understands what he can do, he could easily skip past the older Chan and become the biggest action star in the world.