There’s a great fight scene early in ”Romeo Must Die” during which Han (Jet Li), a good ex-cop unjustly imprisoned in a Hong Kong jail, breaks free even though he’s surrounded by guards, hung upside down by a chain around one foot, and handcuffed. Jackie Chan’s got impishness, Chow Yun-Fat’s got soul, but 36-year-old Li, with his mild gaze and perpetual whisper of a smile, has got swiftness and grace. And the dignity and ingenuity with which he dispatches his tormentors and slips his bonds is a delight: Every time Li does that thing he does, ”Romeo” is never more alive.
So why does this action movie feel so handcuffed too? The story is serviceable enough. Han busts out and flies to Oakland because his younger brother has been murdered during skirmishes between Asian and black gangs trying to control the waterfront. Suave Han (who, given Li’s linguistic proficiency, speaks English with none of the effort visible on the faces of fellow students Chan and Chow) meets Trish (recording star Aaliyah, powder-fresh in her movie acting debut), not knowing the two have something in common: His father (Henry O) and her father (Delroy Lindo) are the commanders-in-chief of these wars.
But well-known cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (he worked with Li on ”Lethal Weapon 4”) plays it so safe in his directing debut that sparks sputter rather than fly. There’s minimum daring, minimum mayhem, minimum verve, despite a pumped-up hip-hop soundtrack. I’ve got no beef with America’s appropriation of Hong Kong-style action flicks as a genre. For every ”Face/Off” it’s worth putting up with a dozen ”Replacement Killers.” (Only the mixmaster mentality of Hollywood could blend East-West, black-white, bio-techno sensibilities into such fascinating hybrids as ”The Matrix” and ”Rush Hour.”)
Still, ”Romeo Must Die” doesn’t take advantage of its own possibilities, either as a hard-boiled gangland battle or as a soft-boiled, interracial Shakespearean love story. O action producers, where art thou? Take a cue from Jet Li, sailing through space with unbounded dash. He’s here, and he’s ready to astonish. Don’t leave him star-cross’d.