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Chic Shakespeare Pumped Up, Hip Version Of Tragic Romantic Drama Succeeds On Many Levels

Chris Hewitt St. Paul Pioneer Press

William Shakespeare is armed and dangerous.

Romeo is in a street gang, Juliet is handy with semi-automatic handguns, and the whole of “Romeo and Juliet” is set in a chaotic world where surveillance choppers hover overhead while crazed gang members spew natural-born couplets on the ground. Directed by Baz Luhrmann (“Strictly Ballroom”), it’s a bold reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s classic romance, and it is sensational.

Every element works, beginning with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers. DiCaprio has talked about playing James Dean for years and now he no longer needs to - his tender Romeo Montague is riveting, Deaned-up work.

Danes is even better. Luhrmann’s Juliet Capulet is a victim of abuse and Danes comes through with a performance of desperate vulnerability - sometimes, her cry has the raw, naked sound of a terrified infant. Some will accuse the pair of overacting, but you tell me how much emotion is too much when you’re a 16-year-old who loses everything you ever loved.

The movie uses Shakespeare’s language, but it’s stylistically closer to “Trainspotting” than “Masterpiece Theatre.” Luhrmann’s restless, jiggly camera can’t stand still long enough to let anybody croak out a whole sentence.

It’s unclear when the movie takes place - it’s an era that embraces both “wherefor art thou’s” and thong bikinis - but the frightening images fly by as if we’re in the same fever that grips the two lovers, who are convinced that “the world is not thy friend.”

Underscoring it all is energetic music that balances swirling strings against a monster woofer pounding beats into our brains.

What makes the movie thrilling is that Luhrmann has solid ideas about what “Romeo and Juliet” means.

Although the movie scorches across the screen in two speedy hours, the actors supply subtle details that give us new insight into these familiar characters - Diane Venora’s Mrs. Capulet is a fading Southern belle who loves her cold cream more than her daughter; Paul Sorvino’s abusive Mr. Capulet is threatened by his wife’s sexual allure; Pete Postlethwaite’s Father Lawrence seals the lovers’ fate with a tiny error involving a crummy overnight-delivery service.

Call me crazy, but I think Luhrmann’s subtly altered death scene is even better and deeper than the original. He gives us an intimate understanding of why the lovers kill themselves, and the fact that we understand it makes it even more horrifying.

Luhrmann never falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide, either. Romeo and Juliet’s love is so hot and so strong that their mutual final exit is an even more tragic waste. It shows us that “to be or not to be” is no question at all.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Romeo and Juliet” Locations: East Sprague, Lyons and Coeur d’Alene Credits: Directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Harold Perrineau, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora, Brian Dennehy, Miriam Margolyes C Running time: 2 hours Rating: PG-13

This sidebar appeared with the story: “Romeo and Juliet” Locations: East Sprague, Lyons and Coeur d’Alene Credits: Directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Harold Perrineau, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora, Brian Dennehy, Miriam Margolyes C Running time: 2 hours Rating: PG-13

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