ROMEO MUST DIE
ZERO STARS/**** Image B Sound B Extras C
starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, Delroy Lindo
screenplay by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell
directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak
CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE
ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras D
starring Jet Li, DMX, Anthony Anderson, Gabrielle Union
screenplay by John O'Brien and Channing Gibson
directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak
by Walter Chaw There are a lot of interesting things about Jet Li's sad run through Hollywood, among them the fairly simple question of why, in Romeo Must Die, this particular yellow Romeo must die. But then he doesn't die, and he also doesn't get to kiss the girl, who isn't white but Aaliyah (black)--mitigating, I would have thought, the taboo against Asian men in American cinema having any kind of sexuality that isn't ridiculous (see: Long Duk Dong) or that involves a white lady. In his next film, Kiss of the Dragon, Jet teams up with a white prostitute (Bridget Fonda) and, belying the sly Orientalist promise of the title, doesn't get to kiss her, either--and she's a fucking hooker. It's a cultural ban so stringent that there's a specific category of porn, deeply perverse, that is not only interracial, but specifically Asian man on white woman. Not long after 2003's Cradle 2 the Grave, Li played an Asian man kept on a leash who, at a word, is made to perform martial arts for his white master's favour. Danny the Dog (retitled Unleashed in the United States...why, again? Because of Hollywood's sensitivity?) is probably the most poignant expression of the plight of the Asian action hero in the United States: castrated, humiliated, valued for the single trait of knowing kung fu--even if, as it was for Jackie Chan in the Karate Kid reboot, Chinese "kung fu" is reconfigured as Japanese "karate." Chris Tucker's favourite joke in the Rush Hour movies, after all, is to mistake the two cultures--a favour to neither and funny, probably, only to Tucker.
At the time of its release, Romeo Must Die was largely discussed in terms of the innovation of marrying the martial-arts genre with hip-hop when, in truth, Blaxploitation was always involved with Asian bootleg martial-arts flicks. I used to wonder why that was; I think it probably has something to do with being outcast subcultures. I think it's too bad that there's so much native antagonism between the two in reality: When you see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fight Bruce Lee in Game of Death, it's very much a dream of integration. Quentin Tarantino gets that--his Kill Bill films are, how you say, honourable? Romeo Must Die is horseshit. In it, Li's disgraced policeman Han escapes from a Chinese prison to avenge his brother's death in America. It seems that Han's brother was a casualty in a turf war between his father (Henry O) and O'Day (Delroy Lindo), who are secretly in cahoots to scare property owners into selling their...oh, who gives a good shit? There's a moment early on where O'Day's daughter Trish (Aaliyah), called "you Aaliyah-looking girl" by fat-not-funny Stepin Fetchit Maurice (Anthony Anderson, typecast), asks Han if it's true that all the Hong Kong brothers know kung fu--which is sort of self-aware. There's another moment in which it's revealed that the villains' master plan is all about sharing ownership in an NFL expansion bid. O'Day is urged to follow through because there aren't any African-American owners in the NFL (Reggie Fowler is a minority--pun more or less intended--partner in ownership of the Minnesota Vikings), which is also sort of self-aware. The rest of it is undiluted garbage.
The directorial debut of cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, coming off Lethal Weapon 4, as a matter of fact, Romeo Must Die favours wire-aided fu that blunts Li's abilities while enhancing Aaliyah's. The worst scene in a film composed entirely of bad scenes is one where Han, because he's opposed to hitting women (even if they're assassins sent to kill him), uses Trish like a puppet to hit a woman assassin. Wait, that's the best scene. The dialogue is awful, the pacing totally uneven; they play bamboo flutes when Asians are on screen and rap when black guys are on screen, making this movie directed by some white dude an equal-opportunity offender. A kiss between Trish and Han, shot but deleted because "urban [test] audiences" (code for "black") didn't like it, would've been a watershed of sorts, but it doesn't so much as rate inclusion as a deleted scene on the Blu-ray because, ick. And a special effect that shows an animated "X-ray" of bones breaking and hearts getting punctured and spines shattering is a direct result of the then-fresh success of The Matrix and the belief that this shit would never date poorly when, honestly, it only dates poorly. I saw Romeo Must Die on opening night because I was proud that Jet Li had scored the lead in an American film.
Three years later, Jet reteamed with Bartkowiak, producer Joel Silver, Anderson, and "urban" musician DMX in the likewise-dreadful Cradle 2 the Grave, which, numeral to the contrary, is not a sequel. The shocker this time around is that it wasn't direct-to-video--maybe not so shocking, because when the accountants stopped stacking the bullion from Romeo Must Die, it had made nearly $100M against a $25M investment. Cradle 2 the Grave wasn't nearly so profitable and Li was immediately relegated to bit parts as villains and characters named "Yin Yang." Gabrielle Union plays Aaliyah this time around, though there's nary a thought to ever placing Jet in a romantic entanglement with anyone here. Jet is Taiwanese super-agent Su, who wants the "black diamonds" stolen by Fait (DMX) and his crew of high-tech safecrackers. You see how I'm cunningly employing these racial terms, I trust. It's humour. Evidently the black diamonds are some kind of WMD that evil warlord Yao Ling (Mark Dacascos) wants to sell to Arabs, I bet, thus Fait and Su team up to battle the evil forces of Yao Ling. But their biggest enemy? An awful director and a screenplay by one of the assholes who wrote Lethal Weapon 4 (Channing Gibson) and the asshole responsible for Starsky & Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard (John O'Brien).
We know that Fait's a good dude because he loves his daughter, and we know that Su's a badass cipher employed by the filmmakers to ensure Fait's domestic tranquility because Cradle 2 the Grave was half-scripted by the asshole who wrote Lethal Weapon 4. We know we're in good hands, because during the opening heist sequence, Anderson is asked to do a withering gay act that does for gays what Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi did for Asians--you know, 'cause it's funny. Tom Arnold is in this movie, too, reminding me as he ad-libs his way through an arms-dealer role that I sorta liked him in the outrageously offensive True Lies, which is probably why he got this gig; the film's best special effect, actually, is one where Tom Arnold gives the best performance. What's fun about this movie is how it's equally unable to transform DMX into an actor or a martial artist, but that doesn't stop them from making him the emotional centre of the film. (This raises a lot of rhetorical questions.) The fight scenes lack creativity and the movie's so desperate for them that it falls back on that hoary old fight-flick conceit of Su having to enter a fight contest at one point to infiltrate a club. This leads to an ignoble moment where Jet uses a little person (Martin Klebba) as a weapon. Then the little person calls him "Bruce" (and Arnold calls him a "Chinaman") in the only moment that's somewhat self-aware. Jet also gets to fight a giant bleached-blonde guy (UFC fighter Tito Ortiz) like he will again in a bathroom in Unleashed. It makes mores sense there in the shitter.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Come to think of it, these films are plotted and scored like porno flicks: You know why we're here; if you get them for private use, you're no doubt fast-forwarding to and replaying the money shots. Lucky for us all, then, boom-chicka-wow-wow, Warner has deigned to release them on Blu-ray. Romeo Must Die's 2.40:1, 1080p catalogue-purge is standard new-millennial stuff. Colours are fine, detail is fine. Scenes outdoors run a bit hot, but I'm gonna lay that at the doorstep of ersatz stylist Bartkowiak. Still, the whole thing looks slightly electronic; I suspect the master used for DVD was not extensively updated. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is likewise unexceptional, thanks to a mix that uses the rear channels and subwoofer sparingly. Don't get me wrong, the hip-hop soundtrack is loud--indeed, to the point of overwhelming everything in its path, including dialogue. It's a veritable wall of noise. An "HBO First Look" (15 mins., SD--like all the supplements under discussion) promo reel has precious little Jet and entirely too much Anderson, playin' the fool to his li'l buddy "Dim Sum." Lindo tries to salvage some dignity for himself, but, yeah. Nothing to see here. Silver is front and centre with such ridiculous statements as how the wire-fu is "all Jet"--meaning what, exactly? What it means is that Silver understands the appeal of Jet is his physical ability but that, even in understanding Jet's appeal, he's decided to fuck it up with X-ray bullet-time and CGI. Two trailers and two Aaliyah music videos continue the dulling parade of extras that proceeds, inexplicably, with a "Making of" (4 mins.) for one of Aaliyah's videos. Aaliyah, if you didn't know, died in a plane crash, though not before she did Queen of the Damned. This isn't anywhere mentioned in the special features, dating them instantly.
"Inside the Visual Effects" (4 mins.) has dorks going on about how emotional and violent are their computer animations of bones breaking; "Diary of a Mad Bomber" (5 mins.) has stunt coordinator Tony Laiarowicz talking about how awesome the movie is with its breaking glass and explosions and shit; and "Anatomy of a Stunt" (7 mins.) is kind of interesting because it gives names and faces to the stunt people (like Melissa Stubbs) hired to risk their lives for a godawful movie. Stubbs is awesome, by the way. She can't remember the name of the actress she's pretending to be and characterizes as "ridiculous" the requirement that so many of her stunts involve wearing tiny nighties while her male counterparts are in "full, three-piece suits." It's like what they used to say about who was the better dancer between Astaire and Rogers: Rogers, because she did everything Fred did but backwards and in heels. I also like that her nickname is "stubby." This featurette is worth the price of admission.
"The Sound Stage" (2 mins.) is a substance-free bit that teaches nothing about sound-mixing; "The Stair Dance" (1 min.) briefly goes over a stunt in the film; "Kung Fu Football" (3 mins.) does the same for the ridiculous football scene where Jet beats up a team of black people for no reason; "A Benz, A Bike, A Babe and Some Bad-Assed Kung Fu" (4 mins.) has Aaliyah making a joke about Jet's driving skills; "The Hose" (3 mins.) sees Jet swinging a fire hose around; "Master on Fire" (2 mins.) informs how no actual contact is made when they fake fight; and "Jet Li is Han" (4 mins.) finds Anderson interrupting an introspective Jet to mug and act like a total fucking jackass. "Aaliyah is Trish" (5 mins.) is a far more respectful treatment of the pop singer's "journey" to becoming an actress in this movie. She's shy! Like Jet! But she has a sassy side! She contains multitudes. In "Anthony Anderson is Maurice" (3 mins.), Anderson identifies himself as "the comic relief" as well as the insecure fat kid who insulates himself with humour. During the credits of Cradle 2 the Grave, watch and cringe as he and Tom Arnold engage in a Robin Williams vs. Jonathan Winters improv showdown. If it doesn't make you swear off race relations, you're a better man than me, Gunga Din.
Cradle 2 the Grave docks in a visually similar 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that is, if anything, sharper (especially in daylit sequences) and less prone to noise. Still workmanlike in every sense of the word, though. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is superior to its predecessor in that the mix itself separates information properly and has dialogue modulated to correct levels. A strong track--if you're a fan of Eminem, the opening titles will give you a thrill. Best turn it off as soon as they're over. Like Romeo Must Die, a bevy, a cornucopia, of useless extras follows. "Ultimate Fighting Champions" (9 mins.) details how all these legends of the UFC were enlisted to pretend-fight with Jet, the highlight of the piece being either when Silver reveals that the Leo Getz character of Lethal Weapon fame was probably based on him, or when Jet says that in real life, all these guys would kill him in a few seconds.
"Choreography of the Camera" (8 mins.) dissects Jet's climactic showdown with Dacascos, with Silver occupying centre-stage again as he discusses camera coverage. Editors and stunt coordinators are consulted (but not Corey Yuen, who did the fight choreography for both films), and the "angle" button on your remote finally gets a use as this piece allows you to watch the scene from three different perspectives. (It doesn't make it better, but it does make it more irritating.) "The Descender Rig" (3 mins.) is a quickie documenting a rig that is essentially a way to control the fall of a stunt person attached to a wire. "Rear-Screen Projection" (3 mins.) explains how the titular ancient process was used in the subway sequence; and a "Time Lapse Montage (2 mins.) is just that for the filming of the fight-club set-piece. Why? I don' t know why. A DMX review plus Cradle 2 the Grave's theatrical trailer round out the interminable presentation.