Skinheads, drag queens, and leather-boy desperadoes. Silver designer pistols that look as if they were engraved at a Rodeo Drive boutique. Gunfights and brawls edited with such whiplash abandon the images might have been cut together by a straight razor … William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a slick blast of ”decadence,” the kind of violent swank-trash music video that may make you feel like reaching for the remote control. The movie’s young stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, are downy-skinned teen idols with matching curlicue smiles. If they can’t exactly fake being classical thespians (they have matching California monotones, too), that’s okay, since the two are used as elegant erotic objects. They balance each other perfectly: Danes is the more tenderly expressive, but DiCaprio, with his cat-eyed Asian delicacy, is, if anything, even more beautiful. They’re terrific camera subjects, and in this ultimate story of youthful ardor, that counts for a lot (as it did in the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version).

Shot in Mexico, and staged as a turbo-charged psychedelic comic strip by the Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom), Romeo and Juliet is a series of spectacular production designs posing as a motion picture. When the two lovers are lying in a church lit by what looks like a thousand candles, you’re not meditating on the mortality of their love — you’re drinking in all that yummy light (and wondering, perhaps, when Sting is going to arrive). Slicing Shakespeare’s pesky poetry down to the barest of bones, Luhrmann makes his stars the soft center of a garish audiovisual maelstrom, a movie that fuses the energy of MTV, the oversaturated kitsch ”passion” of Ken Russell, and the burnt-rubber nihilism of a glib futuristic action cartoon.

Opening with a TV-news prologue, the film plunges us into the wild, graffiti-strewn, multicultural demimonde of Verona Beach. The Montagues and Capulets are now rival corporate dynasties whose younger members, sporting tattoos and pink hair, cruise the streets like delinquent road warriors, screaming out tidbits of Shakespeare between idle gun blasts. Juliet’s nurse (Miriam Margolyes) is now an earthy Latina, and when Romeo attends the Capulet costume ball, it’s a pulsating disco revel, the exact sort of place you’d expect to find Mercutio (Harold Perrineau), a gender-bending black ruffian who favors white Afro wigs. Make no mistake — Verona is burning!

Already, you may sense a contradiction. Romeo and Juliet, the story of lovers torn apart by the mutual hatred of their families, is about youthful romance restrained (and ultimately killed) by ego, tradition, blind vanity. But Luhrmann’s film unfolds in a world without restraint. The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets looks less like rivalry than pure chaos; we can’t believe anyone would give a damn about these two kids fooling around. The movie knows perfectly well it’s blaspheming Shakespeare, and that, in a way, is the essence of its appeal. It’s an experiment in straight-faced camp: If we wrap the Bard in this much tinsel, will you still recognize him? And if not, is that a victory in itself — i.e., will Shakespeare stripped down to his barbaric ”essentials” (you know, love, violence, fashionable lingerie) prove as big a sell to the youth market as Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy? William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet isn’t boring, exactly, but it’s so intent on bombarding the audience that it blows away everything in its wake — flesh, spirit, passion. The two lovers are still doomed by a force beyond their control, only now it’s not the Montagues and the Capulets. It’s the movie itself, which is staged as a contradictory pop assault, a love story in attack mode.

At the ball, there’s a nice moment when DiCaprio and Danes, staring at each other through an aquarium, seem to be gazing at a reflection of their own images — love as the culmination of youthful narcissism. Later, Luhrmann stages the balcony scene in a lighted swimming pool, creating a mood of deliquescent glamour. Every so often, you catch a glimmer of Shakespeare’s rhythms; they’re there in Pete Postlethwaite’s rueful performance as Father Laurence (now a New Age herbalist), or in the way Perrineau grieves through the line ”a plague on both your houses.” Ultimately, though, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is committed to little beyond its own eye candy, its strategizing need to keep the audience awake. Who would have guessed that a modern-day Romeo and Juliet could be this preeningly outrageous — or that it would leave you this cold? C+

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
  • Movie
  • 120 minutes