Bruce Fretts explains how Jet Li and Jim Jarmusch are shaping a new genre

By Bruce Fretts
March 30, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

A peek inside the merger of hip-hop and martial arts

Now that Oscar season is finally over, it’s time to turn our attention to movies that will never win Academy approval — ”Romeo Must Die” and ”Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” a pair of flicks that combine hip-hop with chop-socky to create their own hybrid. Call it hip-chop.

There have been attempts to meld African-American music and Asian action before — most notably 1985’s ”The Last Dragon,” produced by Motown mogul Berry Gordy and costarring ex-Prince protegée Vanity. Yet after the death of Bruce Lee, who first popularized martial-arts movies in America, the genre was largely co-opted by Caucasians like Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal.

It was only a matter of time before gangsta rap and martial arts would collide, however. Both channel physical aggression into a highly specific code of behavior. This culture clash helped fuel the surprise 1998 smash ”Rush Hour,” in which Chris Tucker informs Jackie Chan never to mess with a black man’s radio. (CBS quickly copied the film’s formula by partnering Arsenio Hall with Sammo Hung on ”Martial Law.”)

”Romeo Must Die,” which nearly made back its reported $25 million budget in its first five days of release, pits African-American and Asian gangs against each other in a bloody turf war. The cast includes Jet Li (”Lethal Weapon 4”), R&B singer Aaliyah, rapper DMX, and the great Delroy Lindo (who, by the way, deserved an Oscar for ”The Cider House Rules” more than Michael Caine did).

The martial-arts sequences are enhanced with visual effects straight out of ”The Matrix,” a film that — despite the presence of ”Boyz N the Hood” vet Laurence Fishburne — was more heavy metal than hip-hop. If only there were more fights and fewer scenes of the star-crossed Jet Li and Aaliyah mooning over each other, ”Romeo” would really rock.

Although it’ll never make as much money as ”Romeo,” ”Ghost Dog” is a far more entertaining movie. Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch (”Stranger Than Paradise”) puts the ”dead” in ”deadpan” with this jet-black comedy about a self-styled samurai (Forrest Whitaker) marked for murder by the Mob.

Music is provided by the RZA, a member of Wu-Tang Clan (an outfit with its own Asian influences), and his stark beats prove the perfect aural complement to Jarmusch’s minimalist visual and storytelling style. ”Ghost Dog” concludes with a witty homage to ”High Noon,” which leads us to the next pop-cultural hybrid: the Eastern Western. The title of Jackie Chan’s next movie? ”Shanghai Noon.”