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THIS WEEK: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) Two star-crossed lovers from opposing feuding families risk their lives to be together.
HOW MOMENT STARTS: A rival gang pulls into a gas station and violence erupts.
THE PREFACE: Although it’s Shakespeare, this movie is full of action. The fresh contemporary setting swaps swords for guns. Baz Luhrmann is a visionary director who transforms the Bard’s Tale for the MTV Generation. Lightning fast editing, extreme colours, and bombastic action set-pieces make this ancient piece of literature feel brand new.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Romeo, a poet with a broken heart, trying to get over a recent break-up. He’s one of the boys, strapped with a 9mm, shooting stick at the local billiards. Romeo feels like he’s from the working class side of town.
Meanwhile, Juliet lives a lavish mansion life. Claire Danes (coming off of the criminally under-seen My So Called Life) beautifully portrays the innocent young girl promised to be married to a fair Prince.
When she falls in love with Romeo her wise words echo into history, “My only love sprung from my only hate.” They meet each other when their paths collide during a big gala costume party. Romeo crashes the party with his friends. They’re all tripping balls. As if Romeo’s mind wasn’t blown enough, he spots Juliet, and his entire world changes.
THE SET-UP: The classic story is fairly simple. Two families are at war, represented here as gang warfare on the lower level. The children of such opulence shed blood on the streets. Violence is at an all time high. In amongst such mayhem, two teenage lovers fall in love. They just happen to be from different sides of the war. While the more memorable aspects revolve around Romeo and Juliet, there is a whole cast of characters involved. By introducing this new world with news reports of escalating gang violence, it sets the stakes rather well. We need to know that this love is dangerous. The concept is clearly established in the opening with a crazy action sequence that totally captures our attention.
Right from the opening credits, Luhrmann assures each frame is infused with energy. The camera is constantly roaming or zooming, giving a great sense of speed. This director does everything he can to not make Shakespeare seem boring or stuffy. This is a timeless tale. Its message is essential. Every now and then the setting needs to be updated so that younger generations can get involved in the legend. Luhrmann made his Verona a rough nieghbourhood, like a beach-side Straight Outta Compton. After the opening titles and setting is established, the real excitement kicks in, with some spent shells and explosions mixed into our Shakespeare.
THAT MOMENT: Baz Luhrmann directs the high octane action like an acid trip gone bad. We get a 90s MTV version of High Noon. Our gunslingers are gang members here, representing to warring families: the Montagues and the Capulets. The “Swords” in Shakespeare’s text are now “Sword 9mm.”
Trouble starts when one doofus (played by Jamie Kennedy) bites his thumb at some thugs from another gang. The guy is strapped, and since this is an offensive gesture, buddy gets pissed. He bares his grill and draws his weapon.
A kinetic Hong Kong-style gunfight busts out. The over-the-stop stylish direction is so crazy it’s almost cartoony. Luhrmann ramps up the speed to emphasize comedy and embellish important moments. While the whole gas station shootout is That Moment, the best part comes from Tybalt (John Leguizamo), a flamboyant gunslinger looking like a matador ready for the bull.
Before the battle ensues, Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio, tries to calm everyone down and begs for peace. In reply, Tybalt lights his cigarillo, crushes the wooden match (extra impactful due to a hallucinatory emphasis on sound design) with his spurred heel, and makes it clear it’s too late for that. Tybalt mocks the man, “Peace. Peace? I hate the word, as I hate Hell, all Montagues, and thee.”
The Prince of Cats twirls out his pistol and attacks Benvolio with a balletic prowess. Luhrmann’s camera makes sure to capture and punctuate every move. It feels like swimming in cool.
The scene comes nice and early in the story, making it abundantly clear that this isn’t your grandma’s Shakespeare. The action is like John Woo meets Quentin Tarantino meets Robert Rodriguez.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: While adding guns into Shakespeare was sacrilegious for some, it opened up the Bard’s work to a whole new generation. Young teenage me was not excited about Romeo + Juliet – the play. I thought it was a mushy romance that made girls cry. Well… Sometimes, it feels good to be so wrong. The action got me to watch it, but the emotion and character kept me there.
The story was completely captivating. The language was beautiful. The emotion was incredible. Now I had an idea of what true love felt like, or how it could be expressed. I needed to watch it again, to better understand the message. Never has dialogue sounded so good. Shakespeare weaves in beautiful metaphors and allusions, like today’s hip hop artists.
Flavourful conversations are lyrical and poetic, fully capturing the emotions of each character. This legendary playwright emphasizes expression that may seem quite dense at first, but understanding the character’s emotions so clearly helps us decipher the clever prose. Baz Luhrmann’s bold and daring vision is a gateway drug, addicting the viewer to Shakespeare and pushing them to discover more of his work.
The story and direction is amazing, but so are the performances. Before Titanic, DiCaprio wasn’t such a house-hold name. He had to prove himself to get a role like this with such complicated language. He famously went off and filmed test footage to convince the studio. Producing a film adaptation like this was a bold move. After all, it’s a big budget modern adaptation of Shakespeare… with guns… helmed by a mad scientist visionary. However, it was worth the risk. The finished product demonstrated DiCaprio was more than capable. The young man could act. An impactful highlight is when he begs for someone to kill him, forcing a gun against his head. Another highlight is his passionate delivery of a classic line like, “I am fortune’s fool!”
Luhrmann also created a stellar soundtrack filled to the brim with great songs. Some real stand outs were the choir rendition of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Des’ree’s love song “Kissing You.” My favourite songs are from Radiohead “Talk Show Host” and “Exit Music for a Film.”
The score from Nellee Hooper is really amazing too. The opening triumphant score builds to a glorious climax. You still here it used in television and trailers to this day. It’s one of the most bombastic opening tracks, on par with the way “Misirlou” launched Pulp Fiction. Hooper’s score really sets the stage, complimenting Luhrmann’s imaginative visuals, raising your heartbeat, and making you catch your breath.
By assembling so many eclectic parts to his incredible machine, Luhrmann truly created his own version of an infinite tale. Everyone knows Romeo + Juliet, but nobody had seen it like this before. Its success would inspire several other contemporary set Shakespeare adaptations, but none would connect as well as this tragedy of two star-crossed lovers.