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Movie Review

Romeo + Juliet earned $11.6 million as it bested all box-office suitors opening weekend. But what would cause the MTV generation to endure two hours of Shakespearean verse? How about an ad campaign promising gang violence and teen lust frantically edited to a rock soundtrack featuring Everclear, Radiohead, Garbage and Butthole Surfers—warped bands as forbidden in some homes as a tryst between Montague and Capulet.

This latest version of the bard's classic play is set in an urban jungle ruled by warring gang families. Pistols carelessly twirled and menacingly cocked replace swords and daggers (or the switchblades of West Side Story). Romeo's best friend, Mercutio, has been reduced to a cross-dressing disco queen who offers him a mind-altering drug to help him party. Gaudy religious icons fill the screen, including neon crosses, cheaply cast Madonnas and garish paintings of Christ.

The famous balcony scene, rewritten as an immodest romp in the Capulet swimming pool, finds Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) pledging undying love for each other on the very night they meet. Smouldering hormones pass for romance. The star-crossed lovers are secretly married the following day, and share a night of passion that some young viewers may be inspired to imitate without regard for vows and rings.

"DiCaprio and Danes make the bandying of words a sly, erotic game," gushed Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers. "Shakespeare has never been this sexy onscreen."

There's another reason Romeo & Juliet earned a PG-13 rating. While not explicit, the film's violence is vicious and vengeful as Romeo runs down and guns down the Capulet who stabs his gender-bending buddy. In the fictional dog-eat-dog land of Verona Beach, nearly everyone carries a designer handgun, and screeches from drive-by to drive-by in trashy cars with vanity plates. The city is in a constant state of chaos ... and life is cheap.

The most disturbing and potentially dangerous scene romanticizes the tragic couple's climactic double suicide. Romeo drinks poison. Juliet puts a pistol to her head and pulls the trigger. The camera pulls back. We see the lovers lying together peacefully amid hundreds of flickering candles. What image does this present to despondent and self-destructive adolescents? Death brings tranquility. Teens convinced that the future is empty and hopeless (as they've been told in countless CDs and music videos) could mimic the movie's poetic quick-fix, resulting in real-life tragedy.

Director Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet is a stylish, yet empty assault on the senses which, in the end, is more intrigued with cultural bedlam than with the doomed relationship of its namesakes. What light through yonder projection room window breaks? It is Romeo & Juliet. And it is trouble.

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