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Romeo Must Die

"Romeo Must Die" may take its inspiration from Shakespeare, but in a Jet Li martial-arts action thriller it's more likely that Li, as the hero, will be the last man standing. So don't take that title too seriously, though certainly there are plenty of characters who are most eager to see Li removed from the scene, permanently.

The scene happens to be the Oakland waterfront, four choice acres controlled by Delroy Lindo's Isaak O'Day and Henry O's Ch'u Sing. The African American and the Hong Kong emigre are intense rivals but have much in common, as both are rich businessmen whose fortunes have been built ruthlessly on criminal activities.

O'Day, hungering to go legit, wants to grab all that land, a site for a proposed stadium demanded by an NFL team, but needs Ch'u to help him deliver it. The truce between the underworld titans, both living in elegant suburban mansions, is so tense that when Ch'u's younger, spoiled-playboy son defies orders to leave a black club, it sets off a chain reaction that threatens to bring down Ch'u's dynasty as well as O'Day's.

When Ch'u's older son Han (Li), in a Hong Kong prison, hears his brother has been killed, he goes berserk and breaks out of maximum security in a flurry of martial artistry. It seems that he is actually a cop who had promised his late mother he would always look after his brother and has taken a fall for his gangster father, who had fled the former British crown colony.

Landing in the Bay Area to avenge his brother's death, he swiftly--and amusingly--crosses paths with Trish (Aaliyah), Isaak's lovely young daughter who has turned her back on her father and lives on her own in a modest apartment while running a gift shop. The attraction between Han and Trish is instant and develops into a relationship their respective fathers are less than thrilled about.

Body counts run high in this genre, but "Romeo Must Die," which marks Li's first English-language starring role, tries for some depth and sophistication. The fathers, especially Lindo's Isaak, possess intelligence and dimension, and O and Lindo both capably evoke pathos. The film is a new step for both Li, who hopes to break out with it, and for recording star Aaliyah, in an accomplished film debut. Han and Trish are appealing and attractive.

However, the couple's fathers are both lamentably unperceptive about their second-in-commands. From the get-go it's obvious that Kai (Russell Wong), Ch'u's handsome, cocky enforcer, and Mac (Isaiah Washington), Isaak's nakedly ambitious protege, are not guys long on loyalty and are swift to resort to violence to get their way.

Although you can almost immediately tell that the film was shot in Vancouver rather than Oakland, "Romeo Must Die" has a great look and an edgy feel, along with some broad swaths of humor, most of it supplied by Isaak's thickheaded strong-arm, Maurice (Anthony Anderson), who is on hand purely for comic relief.

This Warners release marks a confident directorial debut for noted cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, working from a shrewd Eric Bernt-John Jarrell script, adapted from a Mitchell Kapner story. Glen MacPherson's cinematography is sleek and jazzy, and J. Michael Riva, no less, has served as visual consultant. The film's kinetic energy is well-matched by Stanley Clarke and Timbaland's terrific score, which incorporates lots of hip-hop numbers.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence, some language and brief nudity. Times guidelines: The violence is strong, typical of the genre.

'Romeo Must Die'

Jet Li: Han

Aaliyah: Trish O'Day

Isaiah Washington: Mac

Russell Wong: Kai

Delroy Lindo: Isaak O'Day

Henry O: Ch'u Sing

A Warner Bros. presentation of a Silver Pictures production. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak. Producers Joel Silver and Jim Van Wyck. Executive producer Dan Cracchiolo. Screenplay by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell, from a story by Mitchell Kapner. Cinematographer Glen MacPherson. Editor Derek G. Brechin. Music Stanley Clarke and Timbaland. Costume design Sandra J. Blackie. Production designer Michael Bolton. Art director Jim Steuart. Set designer Jay Mitchell. Set decorator Rose Marie McSherry. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.