The works of the great bard have been adapted so many times, in so many mediums, that they may as well be a part of the collective consciousness. In particular, it's almost impossible to miss the random references and nods found so frequently to Romeo and Juliet, his tale of star-cross'd lovers from warring households that may well be Shakespeare's most popular (though not greatest) work. In almost any story of forbidden love or even mere friendship, we can find parallels to the Capulets and Montagues, and the varying themes found entrenched in their feud.
The modernization and/or localization of classic works, particularly Shakespearian, is nothing new. Even the use of the classic Elizabethan dialogue in a different time period is common. It's odd, really, then, that Baz Luhrmann's take on the story of Romeo and Juliet feels so unique, one of the better adaptations of the story. With budding stars in the leads, a fantastic supporting cast, and as much modern music as could fit into a two-hour film, the mood of the film still matches the classic romanticism against tragedy and tradition, and is easily one of the best ways for youths to experience the story for the first time.
We all know the story, of the lone children of both the house of Montague and the house of Capulet, who fall in love despite their family-wide hatred for the other's. As Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) engage in a secret love, the pressure from Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) for his daughter to instead marry the wealthy Dave Paris (Paul Rudd) and the attacks on Montagues by Tybalt (John Leguizamo), the prince of cats, threaten the sanctity of their union. For the love to strive without restraint, drastic measures and risks are taken, that prove the true love the pair feel for the other, though the very vehicle for their freedom will also be their downfall.
Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet' isn't perfect, nor is it the best adaptation of Shakespeare, or even the famous play. It's repetitive, playing the prologue twice in succession (a device, claimed in the extras, was used to try to get the audience into the mood for the language), full of repeated shots and gimmicks. Its imagination, portraying the various swords and daggers as branded firearms of the same names, at times can be both its greatest strength, and its downfall. The pace of the film can sometimes suffer from modern influences, rather than classical sensibilities and theme, while camera movements can feel anything but traditional.
The acting for the film is quite inspired and mixed, with a handful of brilliant casting choices and an equal number of mistakes. DiCaprio was at the perfect time in his career to portray Romeo, sporting the innocent good looks that could easily pass for any adolescent, and no other film with the star has the awkwardness exhibited here, the sheer clumsiness that has a charm all its own. Danes doesn't fare as well, but in her first Shakespearian role, she doesn't exactly fail either. The scene-stealer, in my eyes, is Sorvino, as Juliet's controlling father. It's the role the man was born to play. He's burly, classical (as is evidenced by his operatic capabilities), has the most amazing dominating voice and facial expressions, and has a commanding presence. Leguizamo has a wonderful sneer, I'll give him that much, but it doesn't work well when that's the only thing the character does for each and every second he's on screen. Pete Postlethwaite is a great Father Laurence, even if that massive cross tattoo is a bit unnerving, an under-appreciated actor if ever there was one.
The music for 'Romeo + Juliet' takes on a life of its own, as should be evidenced by the fact that it receives more attention in the supplement package of this release than all other elements of the film combined. While none of the songs heard by their lonesome seem to be fitting for such a tale, they're all used so perfectly, it's hard to not be pulled in by the melodies. That may be Luhrmann's biggest mark left on the story, more so than the extreme modernization.
I do find it odd, really, that in a film full of helicopters, shootouts, and even some vehicular mayhem (who knew Shakespeare had it in him?!) logic is sometimes abandoned. The paralysis-inducing poison Juliet ingests to appear as though dead really, really doesn't translate. There's this funny thing called autopsies, you know, where science is used to find out exactly why someone died. It's been around for some time now, and you'd think the death of a young bride-turned-bride to be, the daughter of an amazingly wealthy man, would call for such, particularly since Father Laurence snatches the vial he provides the young Capulet. There's also the whole embalming process.
I suppose one has to maintain an unusual state of mind to accept Elizabethan dialect in a modern beach setting, disregard medical science, and the whole legal process concerning the act of marriage. Suspension of belief is a must, here, where it has never been an issue for the tale of Romeo and Juliet. The second part in Luhrmann's so-called "Red Curtain Trilogy," it's somewhat amazing what is done here in just the director's second film, with little film experience in varying other roles in production. While the film may find itself buried in the annuls of time, a relic of an era, it is most certainly a fun way to spend two hours time, and can help imaginations blossom due to its own efforts.
The sticker on the front of slipcover indicates this release was remastered with approval by Baz Luhrmann himself. I would be curious to see what it would have looked like before the work done, as this 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1) is troubled, to say the least.
Noise, she be everywhere. Let's not mistake grain with noise, and noise with grain, as the very healthy grain elements are hardly a deterrent. Artifacting also rears its head from time to time, briefly, mostly around the edges of actors. Edges don't look too true, and sometimes are over-pronounced, highlighted by blue rings that are reminiscent of poor green-screen effects, possibly caused by some sharpness tampering. Random blurry and soft shots, as well as flatness, aren't frequent, but they're most certainly present. Blacks are perfect, but in dark shots, can overwhelm the picture. Over-saturated colors seem to be an aesthetic choice for the film, and it literally screams of the Mexico City heat in which many scenes were filmed in, with skin tones getting incredibly hot.
A shame, too. There's no aliasing to be found, not even in the tightest of fabric details, textures can be invigorating, and fine detail is strong any time the picture isn't shamefully ugly. Facial features are amazing and crisp, in this film so loaded with close-ups, and colors are particularly (overly) strong. Enter with minimal expectations, and you should be more than satisfied.
The highlight of this release is the audio, as Luhrmann's take on Shakespeare sounds really damn good through a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Dialogue stays in the front channels, as the film doesn't really have conversation scenes that would fill a room. Range is unimpeded, while clarity is very strong and directionality is spot on. Volume spikes appropriately, helping the film maintain the balance between chaos and serenity, while rear activity helps craft a fairly lively Verona, even if it's not exactly immersive. The greatest strength and worst weakness has to be the bass element, as it can be truly thunderous, highlighting songs in the soundtrack, but occasionally, doing so with little regard to the rest of the sound in a scene, overpowering a few moments too forcefully. The film sounds great, and packs a punch, perhaps too much of one.
The majority of the extras on this release are pulled from previous editions.
Sure, there are classier films concerning Shakespeare's romantic tragedy, but few are as entertaining as Luhrmann's colorful, excessive modernization. With a great, underrated cast, and a superb soundtrack, the film deserves more respect than it gets. This Blu-ray release, well, I'm not going to give it that much respect. For all the talk of exclusive features and a remastering, both were a bit less than impressive. Still, the film sounds great on Blu-ray. Bring this one home, as the film has solid replay value (amazingly), and who knows, maybe Fox won't rerelease this one in a few years like it constantly did with the numerous DVD editions.