Romeo Must Die [2000]

Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Stars: Jet Li, Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, Russell Wong, Delroy Lindo
Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Rating: R (Restricted)
Runtime: 115 minutes

The intriguing cross-pollination of rap and kung-fu continues with Cradle 2 the Grave, co-starring high-profile rapper DMX and Hong Kong superstar Jet Li. Master thief Fait (DMX) hits a diamond exhange but comes away with a bag of black gems of mysterious origin. When a crime kingpin steals the gems from Fait, an international arms dealer kidnaps Fait's beloved daughter--and Fait can only get her back with the help of Su (Li), a Taiwanese intelligence agent tracking the gems himself. A summary of the plot doesn't do Cradle 2 the Grave justice; while the basic story elements suggest a dozen generic action flicks, the cast (including Anthony Anderson, Gabrielle Union, and Kelly Hu) has genuine charisma and the movie layers action on top of action to strong effect. All in all, a much more engaging thrill ride than you'd expect. --Bret Fetzer Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, the cameraman behind Speed, Lethal Weapon 4, and The Devil's Advocate, makes his directorial debut with a lively but by-the-numbers film that mixes Hong Kong action pyrotechnics with gritty urban gang drama. Jet Li stars as a jailed cop named Han who hightails it to Oakland, California, to seek revenge for the gang-related murder of his brother. What he finds, though, is a fierce war between his father's syndicate and that of Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo) for control of the city's precious waterfront land, as both groups are trying to make a deal with a corrupt football-team owner to build a new stadium. The political shenanigans are basically just a backdrop for the kick-ass action, and to give Li a number of enemies to lock limbs with. It also provides him with a love interest, Trish (hip-hop star Aaliyah), who's O'Day's daughter and like Han, the only straight arrow in a family of crooked mobsters. Li and Aaliyah have a teasing, gentle chemistry, and when they're onscreen together, the movie lights up and glides along smoothly. Li even finds a way to work Aaliyah into one of his action set pieces, using her arms and legs to fight a female adversary because "I can't hit a girl!" However, when these two aren't onscreen (and that's a fair amount of the time) the movie plods along, despite a stately turn by Lindo and Isaiah Washington and Russell Wong as two family allies who may not be as loyal as they seem. Li's action, though, is still phenomenal as ever, from his prison breakout (as he takes out a platoon of guards--strung upside down by one leg) to a knockdown-dragout fight with the agile and dangerously sexy Wong. And despite the Romeo and Juliet overtones, this is one mighty chaste romance, albeit one with a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers. --Mark Englehart

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