On a March night 21 years ago, Hollywood’s latest riff on the Hong Kong action movie Romeo Must Die was having its red carpet premiere at Westwood’s Mann Village Theater. Shannon Lee, the daughter and only surviving descendant of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, was there, along with Magic Johnson in a pigeon-blue pin-striped suit, and Michael Clarke Duncan, glowing and grinning because in a few days he would attend the Oscars as a first-time nominee for his performance in The Green Mile. Babyface, Warren G, and Timbaland were in attendance too, as was Keanu Reeves, a year removed from The Matrix debut and Neo’s instantly iconic epiphany, “I know kung fu.” But center stage were two Hollywood newcomers: Chinese-born Singaporean martial-artist extraordinaire Jet Li and pop sensation Aaliyah, the night’s Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo Must Die contains the blueprint of a Shakespearean text chopped and screwed into a nearly unrecognizable object. The classic tale of star-crossed lovers becomes a mobster movie spiked with racial politics and inventive ass-kicking. It’s not much of a romance, to be perfectly honest, but as Han Sing and Trish O’Day, Li and Aaliyah are coy and cool. Sparks seem to fly anyway. When I rewatched it two decades after its premiere, courtesy of the Netflix algorithm’s decision to resurface the film for me during quarantine, I traveled back in time to an era when silly, action-packed martial-arts movies rode the American mainstream.
I’m a member of Romeo Must Die’s target audience — of the age group for whom summer vacation meant watching MTV past midnight, who had Aaliyah’s sophomore album One in a Million in permanent rotation on our Walkmans. But more than that, my parents — an interracial couple — were martial artists, and so kung fu movies feel like home. Personally, I’m surprised at the ease with which collective memory has failed Romeo Must Die, a film that captured a Zeitgeist, however imperfectly. MTV host Ananda Lewis once described it, gleefully, as “a perfect marriage of East and West” — “flying kicks, furious fights, vicious wars, and a bangin’ hip-hop soundtrack.” It was a summary that reflected certain reductive cultural shorthands fueling Hollywood: martial arts for Asians and hip-hop for Black Americans. Nevertheless, the idea was hot: Romeo Must Die linked Oakland to Hong Kong, staging impressively choreographed fight scenes set to original early-2000s bops. But the union was hardly the result of a shotgun wedding.
The history of hip-hop, borne out of the civil-rights movement, can be traced on a line parallel to the history of martial arts’ popularity in the West, which reached a peak when multiple Hong Kong imports debuted at No. 1 in the U.S. box office in the 1970s. Bruce Lee’s posthumous opus Enter the Dragon cemented the martial artist’s legendary status in ’73; here was the rare nonwhite leading man who exuded anti-Establishment energy. While mainstream (white) audiences grew tired of the genre by mid-decade, young people of color didn’t move on so easily. Soon, Blaxploitation movies like Black Belt Jones (1974) and Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975) presented Black martial artists like Jim Kelly fighting with incomparable swagger. In the ’80s, Times Square theater owners turned to cheap packages of kung fu movies (and pornos), while Drive-In Movie, an ’80s cable program, aired kung fu movies every Saturday. That program was, according to Joseph Schloss, at least partially responsible for a generation’s interest in martial arts: “Pretty much every single hip-hop artist that I’ve met from that era used to watch that show religiously.” The influence of kung fu movies on hip-hop isn’t exclusive to artists like Wu-Tang Clan, either: Consider how martial arts moves inform the art of breakdancing; the TV series Kung Faux, which recuts and redubs old kung fu movies; even Kendrick Lamar utilizes a moniker, Kung Fu Kenny, that throws back to hip-hop’s roots in shaolin.
By the ’90s, following in the footsteps of Wild Style (1982), movies like Above the Rim (1994), New Jack City (1991), Boyz n the Hood (1991), Juice (1992), and Menace II Society (1993) were regularly reflecting hip-hop itself on the big screen. At the same time, Hollywood was courting talent from a thriving Hong Kong film industry. John Woo made his American debut in 1993, directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target, and in 1995 Rumble in the Bronx became the first Jackie Chan movie to receive wide theatrical release in North America. By 1997, Michelle Yeoh was making her American debut as the first Asian Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and Chow Yun-fat had nabbed the lead role as a contract killer with a conscience in Antoine Fuqua’s first feature, The Replacement Killers (1998). That year, Li made his American debut as the bad guy in the Joel Silver–produced Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). Then there was The Matrix, also produced by Silver, which revolutionized the Western fight scene with the help of Hong Kong choreographer and wire-stunt specialist Yuen Woo-ping.
Part of what made Hong Kong action cinema so appealing to producers like Silver was its fascination with criminal worlds and the authorities tasked with infiltrating them. Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour (1998) had already positioned Hong Kong–style action alongside Black comedy, pairing Jackie Chan with beloved Friday comedian Chris Tucker. Romeo Must Die was Silver’s attempt to capitalize on what had recently proved to be a bankable idea. “We loved Jet, and we were trying to figure out what to do with him,” explains Romeo Must Die director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who worked as the cinematographer on Lethal Weapon 4. “[Joel] wanted to make a movie with mixed race [protagonists] and in the process of casting and writing the script we created a new genre — the ‘hip-hop kung fu’ movie.”
At this point Li’s English skills were “nonexistent,” Bartkowiak notes. “We needed to pull off a story that didn’t depend on language, but on the circumstances of characters whose situations were parallel,” explains Eric Bernt, one of two Romeo Must Die screenwriters. A Shakespearean adaptation made sense — a story like Romeo and Juliet would be well-known and could easily be updated to appeal to modern audiences. (Baz Luhrmann took a similar approach four years earlier with Romeo + Juliet, while Tim Blake Nelson would go on to make 2001’s O.) The casting team turned to both Black Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema for its Capulet and Montague family stand-ins. Spike Lee regulars Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington were tapped as O’Day patriarch Isaak and his scheming No. 2 Mac, respectively; a fresh-faced Anthony Anderson came on as comic-relief punching bag Maurice; with Russell Wong as a strapping Sing henchman and “final boss” named Kai, and rapper DMX, who would go on to make two more “kung fu hip-hop” movies with Bartkowiak and Silver, as nightclub owner, Silk. Romeo Must Die was electric in its casting of Black and Asian actors in all major roles.
The plot ran like this: Our Juliet, now Trish, and our Romeo, now Han, find common ground in a shared skepticism of their respective criminal families, both involved in a scheme to buy up properties on the Oakland waterfront. The owner of a record store in the city, Trish keeps her distance from the family business. Meanwhile Han, a former Hong Kong cop who’s taken the fall for his father’s misdeeds and gone to prison, breaks out and travels to California to throw himself in the middle of it all again. When his brother, Po, is found dead, Han learns that the last person he attempted to contact was Trish’s brother, Colin, which leads our protagonists to unite in search for the truth.
The first act of Romeo Must Die plays out mostly as a showcase for Li and his footwork. After a brawl in a nightclub kicks off the movie in the same way that Romeo & Juliet begins with a fight on the streets of Verona, we first meet Han in a jail cell, where he knocks out multiple guards while hanging upside down in a straitjacket, his accuracy godlike as he bounces a set of keys to his restraints directly into his hand. Li is neither ridiculously muscular nor particularly intimidating — his movements have a sleek, vulpine quality that give him a solemn, devil-may-care presence, so the thugs and henchmen in Romeo Must Die underestimate him. Later, when Anthony Anderson’s Maurice prepares to lay out Han in an altercation — taunting him as “Dim Sum” — the antagonist is shocked when he’s forced to crawl away in his boxers. In one deliciously absurd scene, Han joins a football game against a hefty group of O’Day minions, who vengefully pile on their rival. But when Han gets the hang of it, he artfully brings down his opponents with a few twisting somersaults and leaping scissor-kicks.
Corey Yeun, the renowned Hong Kong director and choreographer, signed on to direct Romeo’s fight scenes. From the perspective of today’s CGI-saturated filmmaking, Romeo’s special effects and stunt work seem kitschy, but it’s the film’s flagrant dismissal of realism that I find so delightful. According to Bartkowiak, it was Li’s idea to incorporate X-ray vision into the fight scenes. In fact, he says Silver invested some of his producing fee into making it happen. (Consider the cost of such novel technology on the film’s slim $25 million budget.) When Han lands a decisive blow on Kai’s head in the flame-drenched finale, the camera rushes forward, exalting his shattered spine with clinical precision.
The fights are glorious. But today, I can’t think of Romeo Must Die without thinking of Aaliyah and her catchy Grammy-nominated single “Try Again,” the lead single on the movie’s soundtrack, her whispered, sultry vocals overlaying its propulsive synth. The sleek futurism of the music video — how it flaunts Jet Li’s moves, reflected in a hall of mirrors, and lingers on Aaliyah as she struts around in leather low-riders. Bartkowiak recalls Warner Brothers eyeing Janet Jackson for the role of Trish O’Day, but when Aaliyah emerged as a possibility, she was the only actress invited to do a screen test. “There was an innocence to her and a street to her … she was a badass but also capable of being vulnerable,” describes Bernt. Few Black female artists at the time had so successfully broached the mainstream; shades of Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard seemed to color Aaliyah’s Hollywood breakthrough, and with it the promise of comparable superstardom. Casting director Lora Kennedy remembers how naturally Aaliyah slipped into character: “She just blew us away. We were overwhelmingly devastated when she passed away. We’d all been there at the start and had such big plans for her.”
Movies featuring interracial couples obviously existed before Romeo Must Die, but those that paired Black and Asian characters were few and often independently financed; consider Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, Timothy Chey’s Fakin Da’ Funk, or Chi Muoi Lo’s Catfish in Black Bean Sauce. Han and Trish’s most intimate moments are mostly wordless episodes, the most effective being a fight scene against a mysterious biker woman with kung fu skills of her own. Because Han “can’t hit a girl,” he uses Trish’s body to fend off his opponent, gripping her arms and legs in a more provocative manner than any intentionally romantic scene between them. Otherwise, their romance is blinkered, with Han’s masculinity getting the short end of the stick. In one scene Trish takes Han to the club on a fact-finding mission and leads him to the dance floor in a bold display of affection. Aaliyah’s “Are You Feelin’ Me?” (“Boy are you feelin’ me?/ Cause I’m feelin’ you”) bumps in the background, but the song’s lyrics are more suggestive than the couple’s PG-rated dance moves — Trish running circles around Han swaying like an awkward teenager. It’s clear that Romeo Must Die isn’t actually a romance, so much as it’s a showcase for Aaliyah and Li, symbols of subcultures Hollywood felt it could mine.
In the film’s closing scene, our Romeo and Juliet don’t die, but they don’t kiss either. According to The Slanted Screen, a 2006 documentary about representations of Asian masculinity in Hollywood, both possibilities — an embrace with a kiss and without one — were shot, but the kiss tested poorly with audiences. Perhaps this was inevitable for a movie about Black and Asian gangsters that had no voices of color in writing and producing roles, a movie that sees Black and Asian people through the shallow focus of their respective subcultures. Indeed, many scenes in Romeo left me flummoxed: A flashback shows Han and Po as children, escaping from mainland China to Hong Kong using a basketball as a flotation device. Po’s body is later found hanging from a telephone pole as if he were lynched. Together, these scenes read an awful lot like half-baked efforts to gesture at symbols and traumas of the Black experience, a meeting of distinct identities as hack and disjointed as the ambient score of bamboo flute instrumentals atop funky hip-hop beats.
Yet traces of what made the kung fu movies of yore such treasured objects of empowerment are also present here — in the ingenuity and grace with which Han evades his opponents, the fierce independence and unpretentious wisdom of Trish. Bernt sees the moral dilemma tearing apart each family as fundamental to the film’s politics: “Do you seek to join or partner with white people or do you rule the streets from your own fiefdom?” Patriarch O’Day yearns to “go legit” in the form of an ownership stake in an NFL team his white business partner intends to buy. “I really think it’s time the NFL had a Black owner,” he says, when he opts instead to hand the payout back. Mac, Isaak’s second in command, turns out to be the bad guy, yet his fundamental distrust of the sniveling business partner, who rolls his eyes when Isaak proposes a partnership, feels justified. “Going legit” may very well take a toll on a man’s dignity.
Romeo Must Die ultimately grossed $91 million, debuting at No. 2 at the U.S. box office, behind Erin Brockovich. Aaliyah and Li both received praise for their performances, as did the soundtrack, but the film as a whole fared worse with critics; the New York Times referred to the union between hip-hop and kung fu as “a relatively chaste marriage.” Like many films of its time, it plumbed Asian and Black subcultures without any outright goal of increasing representation onscreen. “Frankly, I don’t think I ever approached my work with an agenda,” Kennedy explains. “[At Warner Brothers] we wanted to make movies that showed different cultures because we had to mix things up. We couldn’t just have all these white men. We had to make it more interesting, but there was never a political mandate.” Maybe that’s why the “hip-hop kung fu movie” is best remembered as a short-lived fancy rather than the palpable cultural phenomenon it felt like to an adolescent me.
From 2000 onward, moviegoers were freshly enamored with the martial-arts offerings of Li and Jackie Chan, with exotic historical epics (The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha), and with the magic of wuxia films (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), yet in many ways, those investments have faded out of the mainstream. Perhaps for good reason. So many of the films of this era are riddled with cultural inaccuracies, racial biases, and the overrepresentation of white creatives above and below the line. Yet in a contemporary landscape that repeatedly approaches cultural diversity in cinematic storytelling by exploiting the traumas of people of color, or by meeting superficial markers of representation, there’s something about the intrepid and unhinged silliness of a movie like Romeo Must Die — a movie that didn’t care to impart a profound, industry-approved sociopolitical message — that feels lacking today. When asked if this sort of martial-arts movie will ever make a comeback in Hollywood, Bartkowiak hesitates: “I don’t know. Everything goes through cycles and phases. I want to believe it will come back.”