ROMEO + JULIET (1996)

First, let it be said that of all the recent Shakespeare updates, my favorite by far is Ian McKellen's Richard III - a truly amazing rendition of one of the Bard's darkest plays. However, Baz Luhrmann's high-octane remake of Romeo and Juliet deserves an honorable mention, although people who like their Shakespeare Merchant-Ivory serene may want to increase their intake of caffeine.

Luhrmann's update of a timeless classic is a non-stop visceral jolt to the senses. Forgoing the arid Elizabethan trappings of yesteryear to embrace a retro-futuristic world of big guns, fast cars, and considerable mayhem, the film clearly has its sights on the MTV generation. Call it Pulp Diction or Natural Born Lovers -- like the best work of Stone, Tarantino, Scorcese, or the Coens, you don't watch this film as much as feel it in your bones.

This version of the tale is set in Verona Beach, a Miami of sorts, where the Montague and Capulet families are either gangsters or capitalist robber barons of the worst order. Gang violence between the rivals inflames the city, and, as the story begins, Chief of Police Prince is forced to break up a gas station gunfight between beach bum Benvolio and Latin slickster Tybalt (John Leguizamo). The sight of pistol-toting goons screaming at each other in iambic pentameter establishes Luhrmann's conceit from the get-go, and what at first seems blatantly jarring soon becomes par for the course. In this fast-paced world of greasy poll halls and ubitquitous helicopters, the main promenade is a seedy beachfront, Mercutio is a drag queen, and even the town priest (Pete Postlethwaite) sports fine Hawaiian shirts.

Most of the time Luhrmann's furious camera work brilliantly mirrors the passion of its subjects. On the whole, his staging is splendidly innovative, such as when the priest sends the banished Romeo (Leonardo diCaprio, pre-Titanic) an ill-timed FedEx. Yet, occasionally the director lapses into gratuitous excess. His only other film at the time being Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann's giddiness at landing such a choice gig often shows -- particularly in the first few acts, the camera work is excessively jumpy and frenetic. Also, some of Luhrmann's updating parlor tricks fail to resonate. When Mercutio prepares Romeo for the Capulet masquerade by telling him the wiles of Queen Mab, he also offers our young lover a heart-emblazoned pill, which later causes Romeo to hallucinate cinematically at the ball. The idea that Romeo is whacked out on Ecstasy when he meets Juliet (Claire Danes) not only seems inordinately trendy and banal, but severely undermines the cathartic force of the couples' yearning.

Moreover, Luhrmann's high-octane energy carries a heavy price in language. Granted the full play would had to have lasted twice as long, but much of the dialogue from the most poignant scenes has been cut all to hell. When the lovers woo in a balcony swimming pool, most of Shakespeare's stirring poetry is nonexistent. Even more egregious is the silence of the climactic death scene -- Luhrmann only allows Romeo a few choice words and cuts all of Juliet's final wisdom from the picture. In truth, the movie could have used fewer ultra-stylistic shots and a little more of the source material.

Yet the film is a success, in no small part due to the chemistry of its two young lovers, DiCaprio and Danes. Luhrmann wisely chose two of the fairest and most talented stars in all of Hollywood, and both rise to the occasion. DiCaprio further fleshes out the earnest intensity of his earlier tortured poet roles, Jim Carroll and Rimbaud, in his portrayal of Romeo. Brash, moody, and self-absorbed, DiCaprio's Romeo is slave to his youthful passions. It is a testament to the talent of Ms. Danes that, despite the more substantial cuts in her dialogue, she effortlessly appears DiCaprio's equal. Her Juliet is incessantly bright and endearingly coy. From their first onscreen encounter, the two are a luminous couple for which enduring poetry is written. Watching their early romantic interplay while knowing the ill-fated outcome of their love is itself enough to make one's heart break.

Yet, break it must. As Luhrmann illustrates in this bold retelling of an eternal tale, even amid the world-weary cynicism of fin-de-siecle America, there still never was a story of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo.

[First Draft appeared in Harvard Independent, 1996.]

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