When DMX fell into a coma in late March and subsequently passed away in early April, I felt a tinge of guilt for having not been too familiar with his work. For one, who doesn’t know the invigorating “Ruff Ryders Anthem” or the anthemic jam “Where the Hood At?” (as questionably as its aged)? Moreover, I truly never dove into his musical catalog nor his filmography. Almost as soon as I heard the sad news that X had gone to a better place, I queued up his debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and rented Romeo Must Die.
I watched Romeo Must Die with the intent to remember DMX for who he was: a resilient warrior who had a childhood you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy but manifested it into an uncompromising, intimidating presence who proved to be a force to be reckoned with on the microphone. Instead, I spent a good portion of my viewing reflecting on the late, great Aaliyah — his co-star in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s directorial debut. Aaliyah is the epitome of prodigies gone too soon, having died in a plane crash at the tender age of 22. She was so young, with her career ahead of her, that Romeo Must Die was the only film in which she starred that she got to see released. Her second and final effort, Queen of the Damned, was released posthumously in 2002.
Both DMX and Aaliyah fill Romeo Must Die with the attitude it needs to iron out some of its shortcomings. Nonetheless, it’s a mighty fine action movie. Give credit where credit’s due. Without the release and success of this flick, Jet Li likely wouldn’t be the household name he is in America. Li stars as Han Sing, a former cop who breaks out of a Hong Kong prison in the opening scene. Of course, he’s serving time for a crime he did not commit. Han subsequently travels to America to avenge the death of his brother, who was killed at Silk’s (DMX) nightclub. He lands in Oakland where he meets Trish (Aaliyah). Trish is the daughter of Isaak (Delroy Lindo), a ruthless gang leader and real estate developer working closely with the Triad crime syndicate to purchase waterfront properties for a forthcoming NFL stadium.
Han and Trish develop something of a relationship, which proves difficult as dad has assigned the bumbling Maurice (Anthony Anderson) to look after his baby-girl to assure she’s safe. Maurice and his posse are suspicious of Han from the jump. Still, he manages to get close enough to Trish that he strives to impress her with his martial arts skills during a pickup football game with Maurice and “friends.” Spoiler alert: it involves Han playing running back, performing acrobatic stunts, pummeling the opposing team, and still managing to find the endzone.
It’s not difficult to see why Romeo Must Die made Jet Li an American movie-star. He bears charisma and real comic timing in his delivery. Oddly enough, it’s his combat sequences that are a mixed bag. They are aided by copious special effects, as this was the Matrix-era of upping the “coolness” factor. Martial arts fans might be disappointed at the lack of authentic physicality and the emphasis on early-CGI bone-crunching in conjunction with craftily sped-up kicks and punches. As with many actioneers of this time, it’s the dawn of the new millennium, with the awkward gap between the old and new not yet being bridged effectively.
People have written me in the past, but I’m already aware that when reviewing movies, I spend a lot of time paying attention to (and writing about) characters and character development. A movie like Romeo Must Die reinforces my belief that it is often the strongest element of a movie. Where the fight scenes can lack, the cast does a lot of the heavy-lifting. Li, Aaliyah, Lindo, Anderson, and X are bursting with personality, playing likable archetypes that lead to the downtime between fights being compelling as opposed to perfunctory fluff.
Much has been made about the chemistry (or lack thereof) between Han and Trish. The film is always teasing romance, but the two never kiss. In a strange way, the film’s resistance at romance is welcomed given it avoids the explosive moment when sparks fly and passions soar. Such rumors like Li being allergic to Aaliyah’s lipstick being the reason why the two never shared their moment in the film continue to fly. In reality, the cut of the film with the kiss/sex-scene didn’t test well. I struggle to find a moment where you could place it. Andrzej Bartkowiak and the studio ultimately made the right call.
Finally, the soundtrack is also great. It’s packed with glossy, early-aughts R&B and booming hip-hop — the kind that was done right and holds up in the modern day. DMX and Aaliyah teamed up on a sly emotional banger called “Come Back in One Piece,” while the late R&B sensation croons on the underrated “I Don’t Wanna,” which comes in at the right time in the film. Then there’s her song “Try Again,” which still finds itself getting acclaim to this day.
What a blast Romeo Must Die is, flaws and all. It’s imperfect, but that’s part of its charm. However, the real question may be — as film critic Matt Singer has pointed out on his Letterboxd review of Bartkowiak’s Cradle 2 the Grave — how exactly Bartkowiak went from being the cinematographer on Terms of Endearment, The Verdict, and a handful of other Sidney Lumet films to directing three movies with DMX in the span of three years. Everyone needs a muse and the Ruff Ryder himself is as inspiring as any.
NOTE: My review of Cradle 2 the Grave: stevethemovieman.proboards.com/thread/6725/cradle-2-grave
Starring: Jet Li, Aaliyah, Delroy Lindo, Anthony Anderson, DMX, DB Woodside, Isaiah Washington, and Russell Wong. Directed by: Andrzej Bartkowiak.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!