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This 'Romeo' Is Bleeding

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 01, 1996

Baz Luhrmanntripped the light funtastic with "Strictly Ballroom," a fluid, freewheeling Australian comedy about ballroom dancing. But with "William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet," he puts Shakespeare’s greatest romance in a choke-hold and takes it slam-dancing.

The movie, a frenetic, explosive experience full of car crashes and gun battles, is original and exhilarating. But more often, it’s so overwhelming, it’ll make you want to watch "Die Hard With a Vengeance" for peace and quiet.

In modern-day Verona Beach, two gangs -- the Capulets and the Montagues -- live in a constant state of war. Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), who knocks around with his fellow Montagues, sees Juliet (Claire Danes) at a dance and falls immediately in love.

The romantic feeling is mutual. Within minutes, the smitten lovebirds are looking for ways to spoon, away from the interference of Juliet’s parents (Paul Sorvino and an amusing Diane Venora) and her Nurse (Miriam Margolyes). With the help of Father Laurence (Peter Postlethwaite), they get secretly married.

But the union draws the ire of Tybalt (John Leguizamo), a stalwart Capulet, who attacks Romeo, then duels with the lover’s best friend, Mercutio (Harold Perrineau). The story’s tragic steps begin here.

Luhrmann, who wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce (his writing partner for "Strictly Ballroom"), turns the Montagues into flower-shirted, Miami Beach-like punks, who sport 9mm revolvers rather than swords. The Capulets are street princes in funereal black, also armed to the teeth. Mercutio is a sassy African American in dreads, who dresses in drag and knows his kung fu. And we’re offered such modernist line-readings as "Farewell, my Cuz." Technically, this aggressively anti-traditional approach is valid. Shakespeare wrote for the ale-drinking public, not effete, bourgeois snobs. But the question is, how far do you take such license before losing relevance to the play?

Luhrmann also pays homage to everything he has loved in the movies and on television. "Romeo & Juliet" is an explosion of appreciative nods to Hollywood musicals, detective TV shows, the films of Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard, Australian cult pictures (this movie could have been called "Montague, Road Warrior"), Hong Kong gangster flicks and the gangland settings of several thousand rap music videos.

Unfortunately, this encyclopedic display isn’t inspiring, it’s simply oppressive. The barrage of stylized violence, gymnastic camera shots and other visual effects overpowers the verbal poetry -- which used to be the most important aspect of a Shakespeare play. In Luhrmann’s scheme of things, characters’ words become intricately phrased yammerings, well-wrought nothingnesses issuing from gangsters’ mouths as they shoot pool or each other.

Thanks to their attractive, disarming presence, DiCaprio and Danes provide most of the movie’s genuinely stirring elements. Both astute performers, they put new shine on such over-familiar passages as Romeo’s "But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" and Juliet’s "wherefore art thou, Romeo?" In fact, their delicate, romantic exchanges are a balm against the hyperactive subplots screaming in your face. The tragedy of this movie is not that the lovers might perish from poison, it’s that they’re innocent victims of stylistic overkill.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO & JULIET (PG-13) — Contains sexual situations and violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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