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Film / Romeo Must Die

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Romeo Must Die is a 2000 martial arts action film directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and starring Jet Li and Aaliyah.

An African-American gang in Oakland, headed by Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo), and a Chinese gang out of Chinatown, headed by Chu Sing (Henry O) are at war on the streets of San Francisco over Bay Area waterfront property rights. This rivalry culminates in the death of Po Sing, Chu's son, by an unknown assailant. In Hong Kong, Po's brother/Chu's other son Han Sing (Li), learns of Po's death, and promptly busts out of prison and heads to San Francisco to avenge him. Trish O'Day (Aaliyah) is the daughter of Isaak who does not want anything to do with her family's mob activities. Han meets with her and she ends up assisting him in trying to find his brother's killer. A romance also burgeons between them. Isaak has since decided to go legitimate for the sake of his children and become the part-owner of a stadium that will be built on the waterfront. The owners of waterfront properties who refuse to sell are being murdered, but by who? And are they the same persons that murdered Po?

The film is regarded as Jet Li's breakout role in Hollywood (though he had formerly played the villain in Lethal Weapon 4.) It was also Aaliyah's first film and, due to her untimely death the following year, considered the best of her limited filmography.

Though the title, and the fact that it involves a guy and girl from rival crime gangs hooking up might give you the impression that this is a send-up of Romeo and Juliet, in reality, Han and Trish's romance is not really a major plot point.

This film provides examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The scenes between Trish and Han, as well as their scenes with their respective fathers, are somber and quiet breaks from all the fighting.
  • Action Survivor: Trish isn't exactly a fighting expert, but she gets her hands dirty plenty of times. She also shoots Mac in the climax.
  • Actor Allusion: Trish escapes from her father-appointed bodyguard, Maurice, by ducking out of a store when he's distracted. As she's escaping, you can hear him in the background shouting "I'm gonna find your Aaliyah-looking ass!" This was actually an ad-lib by Anthony Anderson that got a laugh out of her.
  • Ass Kicking Pose: Maurice uses the Crane Stance to mock Han, complete with screeching "waaaa" sound. Cue immediate kick in the fork.
  • Attack the Injury: The final battle between Han and Kai have Han having his palms scorched by a burning pan. Kai took advantage of this by specifically targeting Han's hands, ripping out chunks of flesh and skin, and at one point stomping his foot down on Han's left hand (palm-first).
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: A final battle occurs between Han and Po's murderer Kai in a Ring of Fire. This scene would be repeated in Cradle 2 the Grave, by the same director and also starring Jet Li.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Han is generally a nice guy but he will kick your ass if you ask for a fight. Likewise for Trish as she's friendly and law-abiding but she's shoots and kills Mac upon learning he murdered her brother Colin.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Chu and Mac.
  • Big Brother Instinct: The death of Han's little brother Po, for whom he willingly went to prison for in order to let him escape China, is what starts the plot.
  • Big Brother Worship: Implied. In Po's apartment, there are several pictures of him and Han, and even an old memento of theirs from their childhood (a flat basketball). Unlike their father, who was content to let Han rot in prison, it seems Po never forgot what his brother did for them and cherished his love until the day he died.
  • Bloodless Carnage: There isn't a whole lot of blood in the movie despite the violence.
  • Briefcase Blaster: Roth's bodyguard carries one.
  • Bullet Holes and Revelations: In the final scene, the viewer is left to ponder for several seconds whether Chu shot at Han or killed himself.
  • Cane Fu: Po knocks down a racist bouncer with his cane.
  • Celebrity Paradox: As Maurice leaves the record store, a poster of Aaliyah can be seen on the wall.
  • Cerebus Retcon: Trish relates a story from her childhood where she and Colin pranked their mother by pretending he had been hit by a car. The joke instantly became unfunny as soon as Trish saw her mother's reaction. It's an incredibly painful memory for her once Colin is killed.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Po's cane has a hidden compartment which holds a list of waterfront properties. It's critical to unraveling the mystery surrounding his death.
  • The Con: The various gangs are trying to drive people out of a community so they can buy up the land and sell it to the NFL to build a new stadium on. Isaak wanted to take it one step further and get partial ownership of the team instead of money, which would get him a long-term source of entirely legal income rather than a large one-time payoff. Unfortunately, his lieutenant decided he would rather have the money now.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Vincent Roth.
  • Cry into Chest: A variant occurs between Trish and Han after Han has avenged his brother's death and witnessed his father commit suicide. He doesn't cry but his eyes are notably glassy as she hugs him.
  • Deadly Sparring: Mac and his friends invite Han to play a "friendly" game of pick-up football with them. It becomes clear that this is just an excuse to smack Han around. Han turns it around when he is told it is legal to hit the guy holding the ball, passing the ball to other players and then hitting them, giving Mac and his friends A Taste of Their Own Medicine.
  • Designated Girl Fight: A variant, as when Han discovers that an assassin out to get him is a woman, he immediately stops attacking her because he Wouldn't Hit a Girl, so Trish has to fight for him. Being that Trish doesn't know how to fight off an assassin on her own, Han manipulates her arms and legs so that technically she's the one doing the hitting. For what it's worth, Trish does tell him that it's perfectly okay to defend yourself against a woman trying to kill you; it simply made him feel better to have her land the blows.
  • Destination Defenestration: Poor Colin.
  • Dissonant Serenity. Han. He is always calm, no matter what.
  • Ditch the Bodyguards: Trish ditches Maurice as soon as possible, and they continue to let her slip through their fingers at numerous other times.
  • The Dragon: Kai to Chu.
  • Driven to Suicide: After Han confronts his father about Po's murder, the latter admits he's the one responsible. When Han says he'll leave him to the cops or rival Chinese gangs, his father shoots himself.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Han. He is from Hong Kong.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: When the biker assassin is killed by Han and Trish, the X-ray close-up of a stake piercing her heart briefly gives viewers a faceful of her bare breast on the left side of the screen before the camera pulls away and shows her already dead with wide open eyes.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: It's obvious that Isaak loves his kids, and despite all his illegal goings on, went through great lengths to give them a decent education, keep them out of the crime business, and go legit for them.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: When Isaak finally meets Han face to face, he comments on how short Han is.
  • Fatal Flaw: Chu's is greed. He killed his youngest son and several others over it, leading to his eldest son escaping prison and unraveling his plans anyway. By the end, he has his money, but has lost his top lieutenant and most of his allies, with the police hot on his heels and the other Chinese families calling for his blood once they figure out what he's done.
  • Fat Bastard: Maurice is a mixture of this and Big Fun depending on which characters he's interacting with.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Chu finds out about Po's death, his eyes are slightly red but his expression doesn't really change. That's because he's the one who arranged for Po to be killed.
    • When Colin's girlfriend opens the door right before they're both thrown to their deaths out the window, she's smiling at whoever's there. A subtle hint that the killers were either familiar to them, or at least people who wouldn't look suspicious.
  • Friendly Enemies: Mac and Kai exchange some brief friendly words while Isaak meets with Chu in the airport.
  • Gag Echo: Maurice is constantly correcting people who get his name wrong. They're his final words after Han defeats him towards the end.
  • Girls Love Stuffed Animals: Trish has a few stuffed animals in her old bedroom and is even seen holding one close. This was reportedly Aaliyah's own stuffed animal and one she was given by her grandmother who had passed away two years prior.
  • Gorn: A X-ray close-up effect is used multiple times in the film to portray mortal injuries.
  • Great Escape: When Han hears about his brother's death in prison, he promptly escapes.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: Han won't hit girls. So when a woman attacks him, he comes up with an interesting compromise. He picks up Trish and swings her about in order to fight.
  • Head Crushing: The final battle has Han (Jet Li) fighting Kai (Russell Wong), ending with Han landing a fatal, skull-breaking kick into Kai's skull which then leads to a domino-like shattering effect on each and every bone in Wong's spine, gloriously depicted as an X-ray sequence. It's a homage to a similar scene from The Streetfighter.
  • Hey, Wait!: When Han is escaping from prison at the beginning, he tells a guard he passes that he's leaving early because he got a tip for a race at the track. Just as he starts leaving the alarm goes off to alert the prison that somebody has escaped, and the guard he was speaking too runs after him and stops him - then gives him some money so he can get a bet placed too.
  • I Know Karate: Parodied and subverted. Big black gangster Maurice corners small Chinese man Han. Maurice does the crane stance because "Now, you know you ain't the only one that knows some shit," and Han immediately kicks out Maurice's supporting knee.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The biker assassin fought by Han and Trish ends up impaled on a stake upon defeat, with a close-up X-ray in slow motion showing it puncturing her heart and killing her instantly.
  • Implied Love Interest: Han and Trish, children of the respective leaders of the mob war, form an emotional connection throughout it. They don't get particularly intimate, only sharing a hug at the end. But it's implied that they will form a relationship eventually.note 
  • Innocent Bystander: Colin's girlfriend, who is killed with him.
  • Inspiration Nod: Besides the title, there are a few nods to Romeo and Juliet, the most telling being that the two main characters, who build a friendship and possible romance, belong to rival families. The movie starts with a fight between two gangs that is broken up by an authority figure. There's also a scene involving a balcony.
  • Irony:
    • Han refuses to directly hit a female assassin but ends up outright killing her by accidentally making Trish kick her into a stake on the floor.
    • Han arrives where Trish is held hostage to save her, only to be saved by her when Mac was about to shoot him.
  • Just a Gangster: Mac has this attitude, and when Isaak reveals his plans for going legit, Mac wants nothing to do with it and turns on Isaak for good.
    Mac: I've had enough of this legit shit. ... You lost your mind when you thought this white boy was going to let you have a piece of that game. You want a damned owner's box? I just want to own the streets.
    Isaak: That's always been your problem.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: All over the place. In fact, Han outright tells his father that he's counting on this. Instead of killing Chu in retaliation for Po's death, Han will let either the police or one of the other Chinese families finish him off instead. Chu, realizing that he's screwed no matter what, defies the trope and commits suicide.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: At the end. Han meets his father in his office. As Han explains how he figured out the betrayal, his father pulls the pistol out of his desk and dares Han to kill him. Han instead reveals that he's already identified him to the authorities, and has chosen to let his father's fate work out as it may. As Han is leaving the office, his father shoots himself rather than face justice or the vengeance of the other crime families.
  • Loophole Abuse: Han gets pounded in football, as it's him against a whole team, and he doesn't even know the rules. Then he gets told that it's legal to hit the man who has the ball. So he repeatedly passes the ball to members of the other team, beats them up, and then reclaims the ball.
  • Manly Tears: After his father dies Han is noticeably misty-eyed.
  • Martial Arts and Crafts: Han adapts his kung fu to suit a pick-up football game.
  • Meet Cute: While fleeing Maurice, Trish runs into a cab that Han is in the process of stealing.
  • Missing Mom: Trish's mother is said to be dead. Han's doesn't appear to be around either.
  • Mob War: The whole plot. It's fake. Nearly every major death shown onscreen was "in-house" — Po was killed by Kai on Chu's orders, and Colin was killed by Mac behind Isaak's back.
  • Nice Girl: Trish is very friendly and sweet-natured, getting along with Han right away and buying ice cream for neighborhood kids.
  • Oh, Crap!: Just before Han walks out of prison, he converses with a guard about a horse bet. Upon reaching the gate, the alarm goes off and that same guard goes to stop him, and his face tells the story that he thinks he's just been found out. When the guard asks him to put a bet down for him as well, he lets out a massive sigh of relief.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Upon finding out who murdered his son Isaak went to strangle said person in a mindless rage. He also shot and killed the mook who had dared to manhandle Trish, despite being grievously wounded himself.
    • Averted with Chu, who is quite happy to let one son rot in prison and have his younger child killed in order to further his own goals.
  • Parental Favoritism: While it isn't explicit, there are implications throughout the movie that despite rejecting his father to become a police officer, Han has always been Chu's favorite son and chosen heir apparent. His lack of regret in ordering Po's death further supports this.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Po's death is what causes Han to escape prison and go to America.
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Han's attempt to fit in at Silk's club.
  • The Promise: Han promised his mother that he would always protect his little brother. His inability to do so, due to being in prison to protect their father while Po was murdered, causes him immense pain and is what strains his relationship with Chu.
  • Railing Kill: Mac, who is shot over a railing by Trish.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Colin looks like he's going to be a big part of the plot, but his death shows that things are serious business now.
  • Samus Is a Girl: When an assassin chases them on a motorbike, Han pulls the helmet off to discover it's a woman.
  • Security Cling: Trish does this to Han when they see some dead bodies.
  • Shaking Her Hair Loose: How the female assassin reveals her gender when her helmet is pulled off.
  • Soft Water: Subverted. Colin and his girlfriend are killed from the impact or from drowning shortly thereafter.
  • Spot the Thread: Trish explains away Han's presence in her home to Maurice by claiming he's a delivery guy. Then as Maurice is leaving, he notices that Trish was cooking. If Han is a delivery guy, why is there no food delivered?
  • The Starscream: Mac.
  • Title Drop: Almost happens. Only Mac refers to Han as Romeo when he quips "Sorry Romeo, but you gotta die."
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Including a barbershop and houseboat.
  • Token White: In a movie full of mostly black and Asian characters, Roth is the only prominent white person (save for a couple of extras).
  • Uncool Undies: While escaping Trish's apartment, Han pantses one of Maurice's men, revealing a rainbow thong.
  • The Unfavorite:
    • Kind of hard to pinpoint. While Po is the one who ended up going to America with his father, said father had him killed by his top lieutenant because he could possibly compromise a major business deal. Han on the other hand is the one who went to prison in order to help them escape China, though it's made clear it's not for his father's sake but for his brother, and he'd rejected his father by becoming a police officer prior to that. However, Chu seemed to favor him more than he did Po, and it's heavily implied that he always has despite Han's rebelliousness.
    • Isaak's son, Colin, wrongly thinks he is this or the "Well Done, Son" Guy as his father won't let him help run his criminal empire but it's really due to Issak wanting a clean life for him. Sadly, Colin never gets the chance to fully understand or accept this before he is violently murdered.
  • Villainous Crush: Mac appears to have one on Trish, who is no fool and realizes his true colors. His attempt to woo her falls flat and she makes it clear that he is just an errand boy for her father and she wants nothing to do with him.
  • White Sheep: Trish and Han both come from crime families. Trish is a law-abiding citizen who despises her father's work while Han became a cop, though he was still willing to go to jail to cover for his family.