Jet Li's fists and feet fly in the Hong Kong action flick "Romeo Must Die." 

Kick-Butt Kung Fu

Been missing Bruce? Sammo not quite fit enough to whet your martial arts appetite? Worried that Chow Yun has become an Americanized leading man? Then haul your kung fu-loving self to the nearest megaplex to catch "Romeo Must Die." This music-muscled, high-octane mix of furious feet and fists is full of eyepopping martial arts sequences, all courtesy of Jet Li.

Assiduously calculated to attract not only the avid Asian action fans but the crossover crowd that fell in love with "The Matrix" as well, "Romeo Must Die" is short on story, but long on action. Much like those spectacular Busby Berkeley musical numbers, this kung fu movie is all about choreography and flash. And Jet Li has plenty of both.

Since the plot is just the means to an end, let's dispense with it quickly. It is set along the mean wharves of Oakland, Calif., where Po Sing (Jon Kit Lee), the son of the local Chinese Godfather (Tong Lung), starts a fight with a blacks-only gang. But before any permanent damage can be done, he's bailed out by his pal Kai (Russell Wong). When the two are finished kicking some serious butt, they argue. Next thing we know, Po is hanging from a lamppost. The obvious suspects are the unhappy guys in the gang, but their Godfather, Isaak O'Day, (Delroy Lindo) swears they're innocent. Old Mr. Sing isn't quite buying it.

Neither is Po's brother Han (Jet Li), who just happens to be in jail in Hong Kong. When he gets the news, he escapes and heads straight to Revenge City. What transpires in this escape scene is so spectacularly choreographed, you'll soon forget how equally ridiculous it is. No, really, you will. Sir Isaac's laws of gravity mean nothing to the Hong Kong action star, and Jet Li bends the rules beautifully. At one point, the special effects are so intense, you even get animated, X-ray shots of the internal organs that are being pummeled.

But wait, don't go thinking that Han is a typical convict. Oh no, he's actually a former Hong Kong cop who went to prison so his father and brother could flee and start a new life in America.

Barely in the Bay Area, Han finds himself momentarily behind the wheel of a taxi. Guess who he just happens to meet? Why it's Trish, the daughter of his now-sworn enemy Isaak O'Day. As Trish, hip-hop singer Aaliyah turns in a nifty performance as the star-crossed Juliet to Han's Romeo.

The two actually have a nice chemistry together, but don't worry, director Andrzej Bartkowiak never lets their attraction flourish into anything more than a cute, innocent bond. And he never lets their relationship get in the way of the action. That action, by the way, includes a great deal of imagination. Besides Li's show-stopping escape, my favorite choreographed fight is a car and motorcycle chase that ends with Han taking on a tough female adversary (Li's hot co-star in "Black Mask," Francoise Yip). Because Li's character refuses to lay a hand on a woman, he uses Trish as a cooperative — and very effective — human weapon.

Thanks to Lindo and Wong, as well as Isaiah Washington as Lindo's evil second-in-command, the acting is much better than the usual Hong Kong action movie. But most of the credit goes to Bartkowiak and martial arts choreographer Corey Yuen. While this is Bartkowiak's first directing effort, the veteran cinematographer shows a natural instinct for the action genre. "Romeo Must Die" never stops moving, and it's always a pleasure to watch. Especially if you're a Hong Kong action lover.


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