This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
I've seen Shakespeare done in drag. I've seen Richard III as a Nazi. I've seen “The Tempest” as science fiction and as a Greek travelogue. I've seen Prince Hal and Falstaff as homosexuals in Portland. I've seen “King Lear” as a samurai drama and “Macbeth” as a Mafia story, and two different “Romeo and Juliets” about ethnic difficulties in Manhattan (“West Side Story” and “China Girl”), but I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of “Romeo & Juliet” makes of Shakespeare's tragedy.
The desperation with which it tries to “update” the play and make it “relevant” is greatly depressing. In one grand but doomed gesture, writer-director Baz Luhrmann has made a film that (a) will dismay any lover of Shakespeare, and (b) bore anyone lured into the theater by promise of gang wars, MTV-style. This production was a very bad idea.
It begins with a TV anchor reporting on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet while the logo “Star Crossed Lovers” floats above her shoulder. We see newspaper headlines (the local paper is named “Verona Today”). There is a fast montage identifying the leading characters, and showing the city of Verona Beach dominated by two towering skyscrapers, topped with neon signs reading “Montague” and “Capulet.” And then we're plunged into a turf battle between the Montague Boys (one has “Montague” tattooed across the back of his scalp) and the Capulet Boys. When, in an early line of dialog, the word “swords” is used, we get a closeup of a Sword-brand handgun.
If the whole movie had been done in the breakneck, in-your-face style of the opening scenes, it wouldn't be Shakespeare, but at least it would have been something. But the movie lacks the nerve to cut entirely adrift from its literary roots, and grows badly confused as a result. The music is a clue. The sound track has rock, Latin and punk music, a children's choir, and a production number, but the balcony scene and a lot of the later stuff is scored for lush strings (and not scored well, either; this is Mantovani-land, a dim contrast to Nino Rota's great music for the Zeffirelli “Romeo and Juliet” in 1968).